LGBTQ and the Church: Examining and Reexamining

2 Corinthians 13:5  “Examine yourselves to see whether you are in the faith; test yourselves. Do you not realize that Christ Jesus is in you–unless, of course, you fail the test?” (NIV)

About nine years ago I was beginning an intense process of self-examination and reevaluation of much of what I had come to believe over the previous decade. After a merciful miracle involving our third child and second daughter, Anna, I became more aware of the need for reevaluation and self-examination (read about that here). In 1995, not long after I had declared a psychology major at East Carolina, I joined an anti-Trinitarian group called “The Way International” (TWI). In addition to a Unitarian and quite rancorous anti-Trinitarian theology, I had also been steeped in several other doctrines that included soul sleep (the doctrine that there is no conscious existence after death until Christ returns), what TWI called “the law of believing” (similar to the New Age/Wiccan concept of “the law of attraction”), and what theologians call a hyper-dispensational view, which was premillennial/pre-tribulational, for those who might be familiar with those terms. In the TWI, for the most part, there was also a rather loose sexual ethic for opposite sexes that was eventually tightened up after the TWI President, Craig Martindale, got caught up in some lawsuits regarding sexual affairs and possible abuse at TWI headquarters. With regards to same sex relationships, however, TWI was adamantly and absolutely opposed.

A few months after Anna’s birth, I decided to take a step away from TWI and to reevaluate and test much of what I had come to believe regarding God and the Bible. This also coincided with recurring nightmares that I kept having wherein I would go to take a final exam only to realize that I had been going to all the wrong classes, which was odd considering I had already successfully completed a B.A. and an M.A years before.  Nevertheless, in addition to a lot of prayer and continued Bible reading and study, a major, and not so easy, step in this process was to begin to read criticism of TWI doctrine and arguments for the doctrine of the Trinity, for instance. It wasn’t easy quite frankly because of the fear of opposing views that was instilled into us as we were indoctrinated into TWI’s theology. We were inoculated with warnings against opposing views, if not banned from reading certain material, especially material from TWI specific critics and defectors, who were effectively and quite literally demonized and dismissively labeled as “cop-outs”. As odd as it might sound to some, an unhealthy dose of the fear of demon possession was drilled into us; and it was really all about information control, which is really all about mind control. In spite of the depth to which I was indoctrinated and in spite of the fear that had been effectively instilled in me, I dared to question what I had been taught to think, and what I had come to believe; I dared to question myself. So I began to prayerfully read anything and everything that I could find, as I also tried to read the Bible without TWI colored glasses.


Final EXAM

It’s really a long, winding, and detailed story, but the short of it is this: After week after week after week of praying, reading, and studying, one day, while sitting on the couch in my living room reading through Philippians 2, in the spirit of that very passage, by the grace of God and the power of the Holy Spirit, I humbled myself and accepted Jesus as my Savior and as my Lord and my God (see also John 20:28). Through that process I was delivered from pride in my own reason and experience that I had elevated about the revelation of God’s word. I was also delivered from the fear of opposing views and questioning myself. I realized the value and importance of considering as many views as possible on their own terms, and to be a lover of truth more than my own views and ideas. I also realized that one can never know enough not to have some sort of faith when it comes to the major questions of life. Logic is only as good as the validity of the premises on which it is based. An argument can be made for just about anything, and at some point everyone is going to have to take a leap of faith, whether it is in the Triune God of orthodox Christianity or the atheism of someone like Richard Dawkins.

So after my conversion I knew that I needed to get back in the mainstream church. I felt led to go back to the United Methodist church of my childhood and youth. It wasn’t long before I was a lay speaker and not long after that a candidate for pastoral ministry. It also wasn’t long before I figured out that I was going to have to begin reevaluating and reconsidering what I had come to believe regarding sex. It was obvious that the debate regarding homosexuality was still very much simmering in the United Methodist Church, as well as the rest of the “Mainline” church, not to mention the culture at large. Pretty soon it would be boiling over into a big mess that has divided many denominations and churches, including my own (although not officially divided we are very much so practically speaking as “progressive” Bishops, pastors, and entire conferences defy the official UMC position with impunity) . In the culture it also has boiled over into a battle not only over the definition of marriage, but also over the definition of the First Amendment.

So early on I listened to different views with newly fine-tuned attentive ears; and I began to pray, study, and read as many views as I could find – before, during, and after four years of seminary. Most importantly, I made it a habit to try to read through the entire Bible from cover to cover every year. Through this I came to be convinced of the truth and beauty of the traditional Christian teaching that sex was intended for marriage and marriage was only designed by God to be a life-long covenant between one man and one woman. In an upcoming post(s) (maybe more than one) I will endeavor to sum up some of what I have seen and heard, and what I have come to believe as a result, regarding this incredibly contentious and divisive issue in which I believe there is a great deal at stake – much more than simply a college exam.

When Holy Conversations on homosexuality tell only half the story

When Holy Conversations on homosexuality tell only half the story

It’s been awhile since I’ve posted anything on the topic which threatens to split our denomination apart.  I do so today only as a response to a clergy gathering conversation that occurred yesterday at our pastor’s convocation in Holston Conference.

The conversation itself was great.   We split into groups of four or five and spent an hour responding, each in turn, to four questions pertaining to homosexuality.  It was refreshing to share openly with colleagues about our own experiences, traditions, interactions with scripture and reason regarding this pivotal issue facing our global church. It was a fine example of how people of differing opinions on a crucial matter can dialog responsibly and charitably.

The conversation itself was not a problem.  What concerned me was how only half the story was told when introducing the conversation.

Prior to our splitting into groups, a video was shown telling the story of a young man who took his own life because he was gay and couldn’t reconcile that with a pastor who told him he was going to hell while shutting him out of the life of the church.   As tragic as this story is, and needs to be told, it is only one side of the story.

It would have been nice if this story was followed by one of many other stories that exist, such as that of Christopher Yuan, a gay man who struggled for many years with suicidal thoughts and rejecting God who was prayed over daily by a Christian mother and loved without reserve until the day Jesus moved into his life in such a radical way his life was forever changed.  Today he travels the world sharing his testimony. He has not been led to seek a change of desire so that he might one day love and  marry a woman, but loved into a community of people who enable him to find greatest joy in Jesus.   His fulfillment is not found in his sexuality or in another person but in his submission to God’s will for his life.

Why isn’t that story being told prior to our holy conversations?   Why aren’t stories of the many people who have found lasting joy and fulfillment in submitting their fleshly desires to the desires and designs of God?

For many of us, our current position on homosexuality has been largely influenced by the people we know.   But when only one side of the story is being told – the one that suggests you must be either fully affirming OR you are homophobic,telling people they are going to hell – we are not being fair to both the people tasked with making decisions about the future of our church OR to the many men and women with stories just like Christopher Yuan’s.

By all means, let us continue having holy conversations.   But let us also tell the whole story.

Free to be Pagan, but not Christian? Turning the First Amendment on Its Head

I grew up in a rural community in the foothills of North Carolina called Pinnacle, just south of the town of Pilot Mountain and just north of the town of King. Many, many moons ago my mother and her brothers and sisters graduated from the now non-existent King High School. Recently King (somewhat of a bedroom community of Winston-Salem) made national headlines when the town council conceded to the demands of an atheist, backed by the ACLU, to remove a Christian flag and the statue of a soldier kneeling in prayer before a cross from a veteran’s memorial in the city park. For the memorial citizens from King and surrounding communities placed stone pavers in honor of area veterans. Two of those pavers honor Acy Hardin Wall, who served in the Army during World War 1, and Marcus Haden Wall, who served in Korea. The former is my grandfather; the later my father.

Christian flag

The majority of the citizens of King and Stokes County are incredibly disappointed; many are indeed quite angry that they have been forced (some would say bullied) to remove Christian symbols from the veterans memorial. I think it’s fair to say that many are shocked that something like that could happen in a largely unknown town in that neck of the woods where it’s quite easy to think that so many things just couldn’t happen there. In the dream/nightmare-like aftermath many may be wondering just that: “how could this happen here?” While it may seem like this came out of nowhere, I think this is just the logical conclusion to an idea that, like a seed, was planted at the founding of our country.

soldier praying

It’s quite common to hear some insist that the United States was founded as a “Christian nation”; but how true is that? Sure it is true that Puritan separatist from England came here to form a distinctly Christian society patterned after the Israel of the Old Testament and the early church of the New. It is also true that there were devout Christians that strongly influenced the ethos of what would eventually become the United States of America under our current constitution in 1789. Nevertheless, along with those Christian influences were also the ideals of what is called “The Enlightenment,” whose ideals were in many ways hostile to religion, especially religion based on the notion of special revelation. This hostility was most clearly evident in the French Revolution. America fared better because of the influences of Christianity and especially the concerns for religious liberty that were passed down to our founders from the Pilgrims of Plymouth, Baptists in Rhode Island, the Quakers of Pennsylvania, and others. The concern for religious liberty was so strong that it became the first right of individual citizens spelled out in the Bill of Rights in our constitution. One could call this the first stone in the foundation of the rights of citizens. The First Amendment itself, however, greatly qualifies the notion that America was founded as a Christian nation since it prohibits Congress from legislating a favored status for any particular religion. Upon its founding, nonetheless, I believe America was indeed a Christian nation, mainly because the overwhelming majority of its individual citizens were Christian – at least nominally so. Although there has been a pretty dramatic decrease to a little below 75%, as late as 1990 86% of the population self-identified as Christian. It was the faith and general ethos of its citizens strongly influenced by Christianity that made the United States a Christian nation, more so than its laws. The Christian ethos was strengthened no doubt by the very public expressions of Christianity as the Gospel was proclaimed from pulpits and in the highways and byways of ordinary public life, especially by Methodists and Baptists, who followed the new country’s westward expansion preaching and establishing churches that often doubled as public schools.

While the First Amendment keeps Congress from establishing any particular religion, it does not (contrary to the way it is often misconstrued today) bar any individual or local community from expressing particular religious sentiments in speech or symbolism, privately or publically. That’s what the second clause, which restrains congress from making any laws that prohibit the free exercise of religion, is all about. As a matter of fact, while many states did not have established religions initially, some did. The founders never intended to ban any expression, verbal or symbolic, from public life. The point of the First Amendment was to allow for the “free exercise” and public expression of religion of any variety according to the consciences of individual citizens and local communities, not to bar public expression in public spaces. It was never intended to confine religious convictions to private opinions or even only within places of worship. Neither were the firmly held religious convictions and expressions of those convictions, or lack thereof, ever intended to become a litmus test for whether someone could hold public office as Article 6 of the Constitution indicates. “The Virginia Act for Establishing Religious Freedom” drafted by Thomas Jefferson in 1779 gives us even more clarity as to the intent of the First Amendment and Article 6. It prohibited compulsory religious adherence and support but also protected citizens’ right to hold and express religious opinions or beliefs without threat of suffering for those opinions or being limited or barred from civil capacities. Yet today there is an increasing number of citizens who have been threatened, fined, put out business, and fired for expressing and trying to live in harmony with their religious moral convictions regarding the sacredness of sex and the sanctity of heterosexual marriage (i.e. the recent firing of the Atlanta Fire Chief  & the fining of a Christian Florist in Washington state). However slight this may seem to those who tacitly or explicitly approve of such censure and intimidation, this is unconstitutional tyranny nonetheless.

Today it is also common for students to be told that they can’t even mention the name of Jesus in speeches during public school assemblies.  There is such as atmosphere of intimidation that one of my children’s Christian teachers said she was leery about even asking for prayer from her students or their parents for her husband who had cancer.  This is clearly out of sync with the original intent of the founders. A good indication is the fact that the day after passing the First Amendment Congress also passed a resolution calling for a national day of prayer and thanksgiving. A little over 70 years later President Abraham Lincoln would also issue a Thanksgiving Day proclamation that would invite citizens to turn in praise to the “Most High God” and to humbly repent for “national perverseness and disobedience” during the height of the Civil War, as hard as it might be to imagine today. This is not to mention the fact that part of the day of ceremonies on the inauguration of George Washington, included the new President and Congress worshipping together at St. Paul’s Chapel in New York where they asked for God’s blessing on the new country. A few years later our first President thought nothing of inviting a Methodist Bishop, Thomas Coke, to come and preach (yes, preach!) before Congress – on the evils of slavery no less! What is clear is that initially the federal government did encourage and support religion in general, which early on would have been almost entirely Christian; even though no one denomination was given a legal privileged status.

Something has drastically changed. Today there are constant battles over public expressions of Christianity as with the case in the little town of King near where I grew up, and in the little town of Dallas, NC near where I now live. This past Christmas the town of Dallas was forced to move a Nativity display from the town square. Why is this happening? I believe that much of this can be traced back to another religious worldview that was also very influential, especially among the intelligentsia, at the time of the founding.

In addition to the Christian influences at our founding, it is also well known that there was a prevailing Deism among some of our founders, Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin being two of the most prominent. While not a monolith, generally Deism is the worldview that acknowledges a Creator but denies that the Creator takes an active interest in the ongoing governance of the world. The Creator, like a watchmaker, as many Deists imagined, set the world in motion but allows it to run its course by the natural laws and processes that were put in place. While it shares some characteristics with Christianity, Deism is decidedly inimical to the orthodox Christian worldview. The best example of this, perhaps, is what Thomas Jefferson did to the New Testament to make it more “reasonable”. He literally cut out all the parts that referred to miracles (i.e. divine intervention) or to the divinity of Jesus of Nazareth leaving only a universal ethics handbook of sorts. What Jefferson did with” reason” and a sharp knife, the Jesus seminar led by panentheists/pantheists like John Dominic Crossan, Marcus Borg, and John Shelby Spong over two centuries later did with “reason,” votes, and different colored beads.

Undoubtedly 18th century Deists like Jefferson and Franklin, who (as the term “The Enlightenment” would suggest) believed that humanity was evolving to a higher state of consciousness and awareness in a new Age of Reason, also believed that the Deistic view was a higher and more “reasonable” view than the traditional orthodox Christian view. That is to say, they would have seen the Deistic worldview as progress from a less “enlightened” view to a more “enlightened” view of God, humanity, and the world. Although Deism may have seemed then, and even to some now, to be a higher stage of progress in the history of religious thought in the world, it was from a Christian perspective a step back, a regression rather than a progression.

The Bible reveals God as a transcendent being who created the world and remains active and involved in it through the Holy Spirit, but God not to be identified with the world. The God of the Bible is also intimately personal. He communicates with and forms covenantal bonds with human beings so personal that marriage and parental imagery are used to describe them. The God of the Bible is one who walks with and talks with human beings, whether Enoch or Abraham, or two disciples on a road from Jerusalem to Emmaus after the crucifixion. The God of the Bible is so intimately involved in and with his creation entered into it in the incarnation; that is when the divine word became flesh in the historical human being called Jesus, Emmanuel, which means God with us.

To the “enlightened” elite of The Enlightenment all of this was simply not possible. In general, Deists rejected the notion of revelation in favor of religious views based on observation of nature through human reason. This wasn’t a new leap forward into something completely brand new, however. To the contrary, as Christian theologian and prominent Bible scholar N.T. Wright has shown (see especially “Surprised by Scripture”), Deism was more or less the Epicurean philosophy of ancient Greece in 18th and 19th century clothes and white wigs. The difference being that the Deists believed in a Creator whereas the Epicureans believed that the universe is self-existent and spontaneously, randomly, and cyclically generates, destroys, and regenerates order and life as we know it, which is the basic underlying presupposition for modern atheistic evolutionary theory. As a matter of fact, N.T. Wright says that the gist of Epicureanism was summed up nicely in a slogan put on the side of London buses a few years ago by the evangelistic atheist and evolutionary biologists, Richard Dawkins, and his associates: “There’s probably no god. Now stop worrying and enjoy your life” (cited in “Surprised by Scripture” p. 7 on Kindle). So, Deism was a step away from Christianity and a step into Epicureanism and, consequently, a step toward paganism. For some this is progress; to orthodox Christians it is regression and a travesty.

While Deism made room for one god who was distinct from the universe, the theological, philosophical, and practical political effect was to push this god out of the world – presumably to leave the world to be run by people like Jefferson and Franklin. Even still, Franklin, the son of devout Congregationalists, was somewhat uneasy with the implications of the extremities of this worldview. A letter he wrote to Thomas Paine (easy to find via Google) expressed concerns about Paine’s version of Deism that excluded the possibility of “particular Providence”, that is active, specific, and discriminate Divine guidance in the world, rather than a passive Providence through the general laws of nature. Franklin’s concerns were more practical than theoretical in that Paine’s ideas would seem to weaken the positive effects of traditional religion to influence common people toward the good. At any rate, as Franklin’s sentiments in this case would imply, even the founders who were more Deistic in their worldview saw traditional Christianity to be useful to form a moral citizenry. It was this type of citizenry that John Adams famously said: “Our Constitution was made for a moral and religious people. It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other.” While the founders seemed to value the Christian faith, it seems that some may have only done so in a secondary sense. As long as it was considered useful there was a place for it; but what happens when there is a further shift in worldview among the country’s elite that would render traditional Christianity no longer “useful” but a hindrance to “progress”?

Deism is a step away from Christianity and a step toward a pagan (meaning non Judeo Christian) worldview. The New Testament’s revelation of the Trinity, for which there is really no worldly analogy, makes it abundantly clear that the Triune God of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit is wholly other than the cosmos – holy, holy, and completely holy. The Trinity also reveals the limits of human reason and requires the very thing that humans need in order to be saved, humility. The Unitarianism/Arianism inherent within the Deistic worldview leaves humanity’s pride and false sense of control firmly in place. Deism is inherently Arian in its theology (its view of God) and Pelagian (the view that humans are basically good and with the right moral guidance are quite capable of choosing good over evil without special grace/divine intervention) in its anthropology (its view of humanity). Interestingly, in his book, “Heresy,” Alister McGrath points out that during the Arian controversy Emperor Constantine preferred the more “rational” (in terms of Greco Roman philosophy) Arian position probably because it provided a better analogy for the total authority of a single earthly ruler, like Constantine himself no doubt (p. 148 on Kindle). At any rate, Deism carried to its extreme logical conclusion has the effect of pushing God out the lives of individuals and society; from there it’s not a long step to pushing him out of existence altogether.

As a matter of fact many Christians labeled Deists as atheists. For Christians like John Wesley, the founder of the Methodist movement, this was more in terms of what is called “practical atheism” than theoretical atheism. Wesley doubted that there were in reality very many of the later, but was quite confident that there were plenty of the former as he believed that to be the natural fallen state of humans in general because of original sin. By this Wesley meant those who do not know God through the intimate covenantal fellowship that the Bible describes (see Sermon 125 “On Living without God”). Practical atheists are those who acknowledge the existence of God, but live their daily lives as if God really doesn’t exist. As a matter of fact many church councils seem to operate this way, as “if it is to be, it is up to me”, as a song, which was (according to a friend of mine) sung at the last United Methodist general conference, says. This would describe the Deist fairly well, and in reality it’s not too far from practical atheism to actual atheism, but there’s another step or two in between.

Although Deism eventually fell into disfavor among the general population, as Franklin’s letter to Paine indicates, it still exerted a quiet influence among the elites in society and even in the Church. Wesley warned about “enlightened” thinkers and even “enlightened” clergy who down play the reliability and trustworthiness of Scripture, especially as it pertains to original sin (See Sermon 123 “On the Deceitfulness of the Human Heart”). In the “enlightened” Enlightenment mind there is an underestimation of God and an overestimation of humanity. Although Deism seemingly still holds to an intelligent creator, it’s hard to see how this was a view of a personal being since this god was not really very personable in a direct and active way with creatures. The Deist god practically speaking is quite impersonal. From there it’s not far to the pantheism that so marked the pagan world. In fact that’s where things have gravitated among many of today’s “enlightened” theologians and clergy, the widely popular liberal theologian Marcus Borg, who recently passed away, being a good case in point. (Although Borg considered himself a panentheist, it seems to me a distinction without much of a substantial difference.)

Pantheists believe that God is everything and everything is God. The universe itself and everything in it, gods and humans included, are part of the Divine. In this case there is no transcendent God who exists apart from the universe. There is a conflation of the material and the divine. John Oswalt , in his book, “The Bible Among the Myths,” does a great job of explaining the fundamental difference between the general pagan worldview and the Judeo Christian worldview. In it he argues that paganism in all its various manifestations is marked by what he calls “continuity thinking”, which makes no essential distinction between matter and the gods. In fact, the gods are derived from matter and are just as much subject to the larger impersonal forces of the universe as anyone else. The gods themselves are seen as more specific personified impersonal forces of nature. Life in general is seen as cyclical and therefore not really headed to another destination. Magic and rituals are thought to be helpful to align the forces of the cosmos, including the gods as they are appeased and pleased, in one’s favor. The point being here that there are principles and forces to which the gods are bound apart from their own nature and will. Oswalt argues that when one begins with the idea that the world is all there is to go on in terms of discerning the meaning of life and the nature of the world, “continuity thinking” is the result. And “continuity thinking” is marked by relativism with regards to ethics (i.e. perhaps the motive behind Pilate’s question to Jesus: “What is truth?” in John 18:38) and syncretism with regards to religion, and the devaluing of individual human life, particularly evident in the practices of child sacrifice and infanticide, among other things. The other things would also include unbridled sexuality for which God judged the Canaanites and regarding which things God commanded Israel not to practice them (Lev 18:24-30; Ex 23:24). These are the same kinds of pagan practices that first century Jews like Jesus and Jewish Christians like Peter and Paul repeatedly reiterated for God’s people to avoid as well (i.e. Mark 7:21-22; Romans 1; 1 Thess 4:3-8; Eph 5:3; Gal 5:19-21; 1 Peter 1; 2 Peter 2). Oswalt argues that the pagan worldview is the result of reasoning from the perspective that the world, as it is, is all we have to go on; the result is a conflation of God with the cosmos. As the apostle Paul put it, “They exchanged the truth of God for a lie and worshiped and served the creation rather than the Creator” (Rom 1:25).

Paul goes on to explain that this is the reason for sexual immorality and other manifestations of wickedness among fallen humanity. To push the true God out of the world leaves a vacuum; as the Bible reveals that vacuum is soon filled with gods of violence, sex, and greed. Whether we personify them or build temples for them or not, we seek to gratify them and bow down to them nonetheless. I think, though, that our culture has personified them more than we realize. One goddess, modeled in part after the Roman goddess, Libertas, stands tall in a harbor in New York. How much and how many have been sacrificed in the name of a self-centered, narcissistic notion of liberty?

Statue of Liberty

At our country’s founding seeds of Deism were sown and now we are reaping an abundant harvest of paganism. The poisonous fruit is not only in the culture, but also in the churches that have not been able to resist the forbidden fruit of respectability in the eyes of the world. Countless have been the churchmen and women who have sought to line up the theology and ethos of the church with that of the dominant culture surrounding it. Arius in the fourth century sought to bring the theology of the church in harmony with the middle Platonism of the surrounding culture. Pelagius sought to lessen the scandal of grace by bringing Christian theology more in line with the Roman cultural way of thinking about “justice,” reward and punishment based on one’s good or bad behavior. Theologian Alister McGrath argues that heresy (false teaching in the church) often results from good intentions rather than sinister motives, namely the desire to make the Gospel “relevant” to the surrounding culture and to grow the church (see chapter 8 in “Heresy”). In trying to make Christianity relevant, however, you can easily just end up with a pagan worldview with Christian labels and symbols. In this case you just end up honoring God with the lips but not with the heart (Isaiah 29:13), and inevitably an inversion of morality will result. Good is labeled evil and evil is called good (Isaiah 5:20). Pagan ideas and practices have seeped into churches in more ways than one.

Some have used stories and passages of scripture to lend divine support to the unbiblical creed expressed in the poem “Invictus”: “I am the master of my fate, I am the captain of my soul.” It goes along quite nicely with the sentiment that “if it is to be, it is up to me.” In this case the desire to make Christianity culturally relevant has turned much of cultural Christianity today into a glorified “self-help” program designed to help the believer achieve the American Dream. In the extreme, pagan practices of incantation have crept into the church within the “word of faith” teachings that come under the harmless sounding banner of “the power of positive thinking” or “the law of faith.” This is just a “Christianized” version of the doctrine of “the law of attraction” that is taught in Wiccan and New Age circles. I was steeped in a Christianized version of this that a nondenominational group I used to belong preferred to call “the law of believing;” so when a young man who was a practicing Wiccan wanted to explain “the law of attraction” to me I already knew what he was going to say. There’s nothing wrong with positive thinking until you think it puts you in control of the forces of the universe including God. If you’re going to be truly Christian you must submit to the one true God, who is the real Master of your fate and on the only truly competent captain of your soul.

Cultural compromise in the church has opened the door wide to paganism in many ways. It began with accommodation of Enlightenment ideals. Alister McGrath writes, “As rationalism began to gain cultural influence throughout much of western Europe in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, there was growing pressure for Christianity to abandon what was seen as Trinitarian irrationality and return to a more reasonable notion of God, such as that advocated by Deism” (p. 184, “Heresy”). Deism would exert a tremendous influence in the churches that longed to be culturally respectable. Deism, however, probably succumbed to pressure from multiple fronts, one being resistance from orthodox Christians like Jonathan Edwards and John Wesley, another the gravitational pull of a purer form of Epicureanism more in tune with its original pagan foundations. That is to say, Deism in the church would eventually give way to pantheism which is quite prevalent in liberal Christian circles. According to John Oswalt, pagan pantheism is naturally syncretistic with regards to religion and relativistic with regards to ethics and morality. Claims that there is only one true God and a clear right way and wrong way to live, especially as it pertains to sex, are quite distasteful to pantheistic sensibilities. Pantheism also has a disdain for the notion of a personal God, especially one by whom we will be judged. In this case God becomes more of an impersonal force that pervades nature and history, but is not independent of nature and history. The orthodox Christian view is that although God is actively present within creation, He cannot be completely identified with creation because He exists apart from and independently of creation. In other words, God, who created the universe out of nothing because of love rather than necessity, is transcendent and personal. To many a “progressive” Christian this is backwards and best left to the backwoods and out of civil discourse.

I witnessed a great example of this syncretistic pantheistic version of Christianity a few weeks ago. A United Methodist mentor group for pastors going through the ordination process that I am a part of went to a conference on St. Simons Island, GA at a United Methodist retreat center called, “Epworth by the Sea.” The two speakers for the conference were Phyllis Tickle and Nadia Bolz-Weber. The former is an Episcopalian theologian; the later an Evangelical Lutheran Church of America (ELCA) pastor. Tickle proclaims a theory that the church is “progressing” through a 500 year cycle that is currently headed toward an “Emergent” version of Christianity. Apparently, Bolz-Weber with her postmodern ELCA church in Denver is the poster child for what Tickle regards as the “relevant” future of the Church. As it turned out due to unforeseen circumstances, Tickle was unable to be at the conference, although a substitute with fairly similar views was found. Nevertheless, in the van on the way to the conference I read most of Nadia’s memoir, “Pastrix.” Between that and her talks I got a good idea of her worldview.

In her book she describes her encounters and experience with Wiccan, one her experience of going to a Wiccan lesbian wedding. She insists that the Wiccan goddess is just another way of looking at the same being that the Bible calls God. Interestingly, during one of her talks she said that she no longer likes the word “Emergent” to describe her version of Christianity because that word is also applied to Christians whose views she finds despicable. As a result she said that the word “Emergent” has been rendered meaningless. (Too bad she doesn’t see that her conflating the identity of the Wiccan goddess and the God of the Bible has the same effect. I guess she has never considered the possibility that the goddess might feel the same way about Yahweh as she feels about the now disgraced conservative “emergent” pastor, Mark Driscoll and vice versa, but I digress.) Anyway, Pastrix Bolz-Weber’s version of the Christian faith inspires her to an oxymoronic “holy irreverence,” she says. One example of this “holy irreverence” is how she used the baptismal font as a chocolate fountain during a party after a worship service. She also used that same font to bless the transitioning of a transgender woman named Mary who was attempting to become a man. She used the baptismal covenant to rename Mary, “Asher.” Bolz-Weber compared the significance of this event to the conversion of Saul to Paul and the conversion of Martin Luther as well. As Bolz-Weber, who once tried her hand at standup, frequently cussed like a sailor (including when she called Rev. Franklin Graham “bat sh&% crazy”) the audience made up of mostly older mainline protestants looked on in oblivious glee at what was more like an HBO standup comedy routine than Christian teaching. If this is where the “progressive Christian” train is headed, I think I’ll stay at the station!

While traditional orthodox Christianity finds itself very much at odds with an ever increasing hostile culture, the “progressive” version is a fairly handy handmaid to it. The former evangelical pastor of Mars Hill Bible Church in Michigan, Rob Bell, recently in an interview with Oprah Winfrey, a New Age guru in her own right, basically said that the church needs to catch up with the culture in terms of sexuality and gay marriage. As a matter of fact, as odd as it sounds, there are some pulpits in liberal churches occupied by atheist preachers. One of the most infamous was Jim Jones, who eventually became the cult leader of “The People’s Temple.” Before he started his own “church” and became a darling of political left in San Francisco and beyond, Jones was a student-pastor in the Methodist Church. In addition to being a communist, Jones was also an atheist, who after denying the existence of God became convinced that he himself was God. Jones sought to use the church to promote his social vision. There’s also the current Dean of the Washington National Cathedral, The Very Rev. Gary Hall, who describes himself as a “non-theistic” Christian – perhaps something between pantheism and atheism, or just a way to avoid using the more shocking term atheist. Hall apparently did tell Dr. Richard Dawkins, author of “The God Delusion” that he “doesn’t believe in the God that Dawkins doesn’t believe in either.” Of course, Hall’s theology (non-theology?) leads him to believe that it is just too repressive and cruel to prohibit sex outside of heterosexual marriage, and therefore thinks premarital sex is fine and homosexual marriage and full LGBT inclusion in the life of the church is a no-brainer (See Wahington Post Article here).

I’ve heard Dawkins himself talk about how he sometimes works with “progressive” Christians in trying to influence social policy. LGBT activist, Dan Savage, himself a homosexual, who believes that marriages, gay or otherwise, should be more monagamish (i.e. consensual adultery or “swinging”) than monogamous because the later is just not natural and no consensual sexual desire (he would say “need”) should go unfulfilled, also works and counsels in coordination with “progressive” Christians to further the LGBT agenda (See Huffpost Article here).

Secularists like Dawkins and “progressive” Christians like Hall and others share much in common. “Progressive” and “progressive” leaning pastors have personally told me that they have much more in common with many atheists than conservative Christians. Perhaps what Dawkins calls a blind watchmaker, the “progressive” Christian pantheist calls “God,” albeit an impersonal one. The other thing they share in common, perhaps, is what Oswalt calls “continuity thinking” and what Wright calls an Epicurean worldview. In other words, they are both much closer to a pagan worldview than a Judeo-Christian one.

The Pagan worldview with its syncretism and relativism is quite accommodating for just about anything and everything except the revelation of the one true God who makes specific moral demands to which every human being will be held to account. As the book of Revelation demonstrates, Christians in the first century found themselves at odds with a Greco-Roman culture that had very little tolerance for those who refused to bow down to the emperor and the rest of the Greco-Roman pantheon. They were free to worship the Christian God, but not God alone. As long as they worshiped the other gods too they were okay. But to not worship the one True God, the Living God (see 1 Thess 1), and Him alone, was not to worship Him at all. These Christians were also pressured to compromise their sexual purity as well, to go along with a culture whose sexual mores were not all that different from the culture we live in today. Some of the church leaders in fact did lead their people to believe that sexual immorality was okay (see Rev. 2:18-29). The same can be said for some in the church in Corinth to which Paul wrote (see 1 Cor 6:9-11). For the churches addressed in Revelation , refusal to compromise could have cost them their livelihoods, and, at certain points, even their lives. Yet Jesus called them to remain faithful no matter how grave the threat (see Rev. 1-3, & 12-14).

The sexual ethic being pushed by our culture today is in tune with the paganism of old, but very much discordant with the traditional Judeo-Christian worldview. The same can be said for the sexual ethic being pushed by progressive Christians. The “Reconciling Ministries Network,” an unofficial United Methodist group fully dedicated to the LGBTQetc. agenda, for All Saints’ Day, displayed a pictorial on their Facebook page of various biblical and historical saints paired together in homosexual relationships. This included Mary Magdalene and Mary the mother of Jesus kissing in a lesbian embrace. Along with these saints, Harvey Milk, the former San Francisco mayor and famed gay rights activist (who is known to have had multiple sexual relationships with teenage boys, one of whom committed suicide when Harvey broke up with him) was also prominently pictured, more so than any other, with a yellow glow behind his head. The famous Greek pagan emperor, Alexander the Great (who according to the custom of the ancient Greeks may himself have had sex with young boys) may have been proud, but it is impossible for me to imagine that Jesus would be. We shouldn’t be surprised to find a relationship between one’s theology and one’s view of what is sexually permissible, even if some still want to operate under the illusion that theology can be separated from ethics. Just take the atheist Richard Dawkins’ response in a debate with John Lennox:

“You could possibly persuade me that there was some kind of physical, mathematical genius who created the expanding universe, devised quantum theory, relativity and so on. But that is radically and fundamentally incompatible with the sort of God who cares about sin, the sort of God who cares about what one does with one’s genitals, the sort of God who is interested in one’s private thoughts and wickedness. Surely, you can see that a God who is grand enough to make the universe is not going to give a tuepenny cuss about one’s thoughts and sin.” (See Transcript for entire debate here)

In Dawkin’s case, it seems quite evident that for him theology is directly connected to a concern over who gets to determine what one does with one’s genitals, us or God. Theology can’t be separated any more from ethics than the first three commandments can be separated from last seven of the Ten Commandments without unraveling the bonds of the covenant relationship of which they were all a part. God made it quite clear through the prophets that morals and worship can’t really be separated. Just take a gander through Micah or Malachi. Neither should it be a surprise that now not only are Christian symbols being expelled from public spaces, but also Christians who hold and express the values of their faith, especially as it pertains to marriage and sex.

So how did we get to the point where there’s no longer room Christian symbolism and Christianity in public spaces? Perhaps the seed of Deism has grown into a great pantheistic tree that has a branch for virtually every kind of bird but one, those who believe in one true God who is Lord of Heaven and Earth.  The First Amendment has been turned on its head. Now, more or less by judicial fiat, or the overwhelming threat of a lawsuit, a semi-pagan secular humanism has become the de facto established religion of the land of the brave and home of the free (?); and the country is having a hard time finding room for those who, like Daniel in Babylon, refuse to go along with the program.

History is replete with examples of the attempt to push the one true God out of the world, to try live as if God doesn’t exist, and even to declare that God is dead. On a hill far away, just outside the city of Jerusalem, wayward Jews and Gentile sinners conspired together to once again attempt to push God in Christ out of this world on a Roman cross. Yet there where he was expelled from the city by those who hoped to rid him from the world, he prayed, “Father forgive them, for they know not what they do” (Luke 23:34). The human heart in its natural state of original sin, has no room for the one who made it either; but through repentance and faith, Jesus Christ can turn a Godless stone monument of human pride into the humble abode of the Triune God. Jesus died for the ones who despised and rejected him, and on the third day God raised him from the dead. Our rejection of Him was His acceptance of us. Will you make room for him today? Will you raise the white flag of surrender and welcome him into your heart, into your family, and into your community? Our Lord was knocked down but he was never out; he was expelled but never left; he was declared dead but yet he lives. He will never leave us or forsake us! He has shown us the way! Take a stand for truth in love; and you too will overcome by the blood of the Lamb and the word of your testimony (Rev. 12:11).

Confessions of an Insider Trader inside the Church

Confessions of an Insider Trader inside the Church

Before becoming a pastor I sold insurance and securities.   In order to get my license I had to learn about compliance, which amounted to a whole lot of “don’t ever do this, this, that, and certainly not this.”   One of the thou shall not’s was insider trading.   Insider trading is defined as The illegal buying or selling of securities on the basis of information that is unavailable to the public.  Insider trading creates an unfair advantage for those who already know the complexities and nuances of the financial market when our primary duty as agents is to be a fiduciary – one who acts in good faith with regards to the interests of others.  To put it one way, financial representatives such as myself were forbidden to engage in water-cooler-like business because our primary responsibility was to the public who knew nothing of our water-cooler business.

You can imagine my great delight, then, when I entered into professional ministry and discovered there were no such restrictions placed on me!    On the contrary, I quickly learned that insider trading was not only allowed among Christians, it was encouraged!  It was practically a sport.    It fast became my favorite hobby.

For many years I was absorbed by the water-cooler talk among my fellow Christians and colleagues in ministry.   With the age of the internet it was extremely easy to carry out our insider trading enterprise, and, since it wasn’t illegal, we could publish it in the open for all the world to see.    Blogging was my favorite way of conducting insider trading.   It gave me a platform where saved people could talk to other saved people about how other saved people are making life miserable for other saved people.    The titles of my blogs were not meant to deter compliance officers but to ensure they clicked my post and, with any luck, either said AMEN to it or hated it (but shared it anyways).   Titles like, “Why I’m no longer an Evangelical Christian,” or “Why I’m no longer a Progressive Christian,” or, “How to spot a fundamentalist,” or “Mark Driscoll is wrong/right/evil/angelic/pick-anything-cause-just-his-name-will-generate-blog-hits,” and many other such articles which make for great water-cooler chit chat.

Saved people telling other saved people how much better their version of being saved is better than the one they left.

I confess I was an avid member of this insider trading scheme until it dawned on me that no one was getting saved because of it.   No one was being introduced to the life-transforming, saving power of Jesus Christ because of a single thing I had done or written.   Sure, many felt either further justified in beliefs they already held or infuriated because they didn’t agree.  But every one of them was already part of the club.   They were already, at least by their own confession, saved.   I was not their pastor and therefore had little right to tell them how they should live out their walk (and even if I was, there are far better ways to do that than through a blog post, and with far more grace than I  ever mustered as an insider trader).

But no one was being saved.  The unsuspecting, unknowing, unsaved public, for which I have a responsibility as a Christian, care nothing about Mark Driscoll or about why you left evangelicalism.   They don’t care about my disillusionment with authority or established religion, they don’t care about what one group of saved people say to another group of saved people about sex and who should be having it with who, they don’t care about the reasons why you still think Jesus is pretty cool despite all the ways the church has dragged his name through the mud.

The unsaved aren’t asking the questions our insider trading religion has become obsessed with answering…and answering…and answering.    And sadly, we’ve spent so much time around the water cooler we don’t even know anymore how to talk to someone who doesn’t know Jesus and has never once stepped foot into a church (and has never read your blog, or this one).

This past Sunday a first time guest at my church hugged me and thanked me for “allowing her to come” and asked if it was OK for her to come again next week.  This woman didn’t know much about the church but she knew enough, it seems, that a lot of insider trading goes on and wanted to know if she were welcome into the “club.”   Such is the impression we have given to the unsaved – an ever increasing population – in our communities.

I don’t want to be an insider trader anymore.   I want to invest my time and energy into reaching out to the people like this visitor who knows nothing about Jesus or his church.  I want to find ways to answer the questions she is asking, which include things like, “Does God love me?  Will you love me?   Can Jesus forgive me?   How can Jesus change my life?   How can I get sober?  How can I get free?  Can Jesus heal my marriage?  My relationships?  Can Jesus take care of my fears, my guilt, my shame?”

I confess I was once an insider trader but with God’s help, I want to focus less on arguing with the already saved and more on winning the yet-to-be-saved.   As a Christian, I have a fiduciary responsibility to the public around me who do not know Jesus and whose eternities could potentially be changed by my – and your – attention to their concerns and questions rather than our water-cooler discussions.

Why I Preach In Jeans (and you might want to, too)

Why I Preach In Jeans (and you might want to, too)

For a long time the hardest decision I had to make on Sunday morning was choosing what to wear.   In seminary, as a student pastor, my choice of wear was easily solved with an alb.  With my robe on I didn’t have to worry about what was underneath for four years.   I liked that, but as I look back, my decision to wear a clerical robe had everything to do with connecting with people already saved, whether they be parishioners in my church or colleagues in my classroom.   The robe was professional attire which helped to solidify my role as pastor.   Not necessarily a bad thing, but today I have a hard time reconciling the mission Jesus gave us as Christians with the wearing of professional attire.   Lisa proved that.

Lisa (not her real name) is a young woman who got out of jail last week and attended our recovery ministry at our church last night.  She has been through a lot and desires nothing more than to find freedom from the things that have kept her in bondage for too many years.  While talking with Lisa she expressed an interest in attending church but didn’t know where she might be welcome.   A friend piped up and said she thought she should come here, meaning the church I pastor.   Lisa’s first question to me was, “I don’t have anything nice to wear.  These jeans are about the best I got.”   Just then, a member of my church jumped in, “That’s OK, our pastor preaches in jeans.”

The relief on Lisa’s face was obvious.   My resolve to dress so that I can connect with people who need Jesus was strengthened.

Lisa is one of many people who have wandered into our church because they heard the pastor doesn’t dress up.  As much as I don’t want to make clothing a thing it obviously is a thing for many, and I’m happy to meet them where they are.

Paul said that he was willing to become all things to all people in order that he might save some (1 Cor. 9:22).   In light of Paul’s words and Lisa’s relief, I think it’s important to ask ourselves certain questions about our dress code.

1. Who am I trying to reach? This question changed everything for me.   Jesus tells me that I am to go into the world and make disciples, teaching them to obey him.  Jesus sought out the least of these around him, connecting with those who were left out of religious circles. He didn’t invest much time with those who dressed to the nines and liked everyone to know their professional status.   It’s hard for me to imagine Jesus in an academic gown, plush with religious regalia.   If I’m going to be like Jesus, I need to reach the people Jesus tried to reach, which may require I dress differently in order to connect with the Lisa’s out there.

2. Who am I trying to please? The unsaved in our communities care nothing about our professional clothing.   But the saved seem to.   The folks already in our pews like to have a pastor who looks respectable, or at least many of them do.   For a long time I thought my job was to please them.  Freedom for me came when I realized it was my job to please God.   I think I please God more when I dress in order to connect with the lost whom Jesus is trying to connect with rather than dress to please the people already connected.  Some of our people will have a difficult time getting used to not seeing their pastor in a suit and tie or in a robe, but the more stories you can tell like Lisa’s the more they will come along.   And if they don’t, that’s OK.   One Lisa is worth 99 who are already saved.

3.  What does the harvest around me wear? If I live on Wall Street I might not wear jeans because the majority of the harvest around me is in suits.  But if I live in Dayton, TN, where the majority of people are working class, jeans work.  Ask yourself whether or not the people who most need to hear the gospel in your community are going to connect to your message or be intimidated or confused by your wardrobe.

If you are a layperson reading this, you can be a great help by telling your pastor you don’t care what he or she wears so long as it’s clothes and so long as the gospel is being proclaimed.   You could release your pastor from much anxiety about what to wear by telling him or her that you care more about seeing the lost saved than seeing your pastor dressed “properly.”   And besides, shouldn’t that be our primary concern anyway?

Pastors: This New Year, Let Us Mind Our Own Affairs

aspire to live quietly, and mind your own affairs (1 Thess. 4:11)

In the margins of my bible, beside this pastoral advice, I have written:  “Facebook makes this command virtually impossible.”

Isn’t that the truth?  The internet, particularly social media like Facebook, Twitter and blogging, has forced the affairs of the entire world onto our screens.  The temptation to not get involved is too great to bear, or so it seems, and besides, minding the affairs of others is fun.  It feeds something within us that seems very hungry.  That this hungry monster is never quite satisfied doesn’t seem to trouble us as it ought.

Until, that is, a pastor like Paul reminds me to live quietly and mind my own affairs.  Or until I overhear Jesus telling one of his own disciples that the life span of someone else is none of his business.  You, Jesus says, keep your eyes on me (John 21:22).

I am reading some of Eugene Peterson’s work these days and I am confronted over and over again by how oriented his focus was to place.  Peterson’s memoir describes a pastor driven to be spent within a small radius of geography, dedicated to praying for and living with the handful of people who make up his congregation – his place on this earth to serve.   Pastor Peterson is minding his own affairs, and I’m certain the people of Christ Our King Presbyterian Church are the better for his presence.


As I was thinking about pastors like Peterson – pastors whom I admire a great deal and feel they have done a great deal of good for the kingdom of God – it occurred to me that none of them have an online presence in the same way as many pastors I know, including myself.   I’ve never seen, nor can I imagine, the likes of Pastor Peterson arguing on Facebook about what some pastor in Seattle said last week.  I can’t see or imagine him pontificating about the fate of reality television stars, or arguing online about whether gay couples should marry, or posting 5 reasons why he is no longer a this or a that, or 7 reasons why everyone else is wrong and he is not.

I can imagine, however, Pastor Peterson having those discussions in his office with a troubled member of his local parish.  I can imagine him talking these things out over coffee with a recent visitor to his church.    I can see him at a round table with young and old alike, answering questions and being deeply concerned about what these people – these flesh and blood people he is charged to care for – think.

It occurs to me that the people I admire the most are too busy minding their own affairs, living quietly in the place God placed them, and if I aspire to be like them, perhaps I should model their behavior, on and offline.

Admittedly, part of me wants to argue that John Wesley famously said “The whole world is my parish.”   He saw it as his duty to proclaim the good tidings of salvation in whatever place his horse or feet carried him.  And didn’t Paul also ask for prayer that he would be given the courage to “speak boldly” (Eph. 6:20)?   I don’t know how Paul or Wesley would make use of Facebook, but I imagine if they used it at all they would remember to always “speak the truth in love,”  that their conversations would “always be gracious, seasoned with salt” (Col. 4:6).    I’m sure that wisdom would dictate their course of action, that their words would be for the purpose of glorifying God and not self,  and the fruit of their efforts would be obvious to all.

Paul’s pastoral advice to live quietly and mind my own affairs is a helpful antidote to the pride so easily lurking in my heart which whispers that the church will crumble if I do not engage in this conversation among relative strangers, and I’m all too eager at times to oblige.   My wife has been a helpful antidote as well, reminding me that the world does not need to know every thought that comes through my head.  We are all the better off when I heed her, and Saint Paul’s, advice.

I want to read things which make me a better follower of Jesus, a better pastor, a better spouse, a better parent, a better friend.  I want to write things that help people to that end, too.  Don’t you?  Aren’t you tired of all the writing demonizing everyone else, serving only to make you feel justified to be who you already are?

This New Year, may we all read (and write) less blogs about everyone in Christendom whom we disagree with and more about Jesus and the joy and struggle we’ve discovered in following him.  May we gripe less on Facebook about the tribe we once were part of but can no longer stand and instead pray more for those who don’t yet know Jesus.   May this New Year find less tweets attacking the way pastors are doing their jobs and more encouraging one another to finish well the race before us.

May this New Year bring you and me a renewed passion for the place God has placed us, and may we mind our own affairs well.

This post was originally published one year ago.   Republished here with some minor editions.   

Mental Illness and the Church: They Don’t Want Me When I’m Messy

Mental Illness and the Church: They Don’t Want Me When I’m Messy

My wife recently wrote the following on her Facebook page…

While in treatment I’ve had a few people speak with me about the church because they know I’m married to a pastor. It’s been so saddening and has even made me angry to hear how people dealing with depression, anxiety and other mental illnesses have been treated in church.

One man said, “They don’t want me when I’m messy. They don’t really want to hear how I am when my answer is not ok.”

Another said, “I don’t have it together enough to go to church. They avoid me”

Last one, “I texted my associate pastor about how I was feeling and he told me I shouldn’t talk like that.”

Over the course of the three-week group therapy my wife received for her depression and anxiety she heard many more reports, each one more tragic and heart-breaking than the last.   Real people with real problems voicing their very real trouble with the body of Jesus – the church.   For far too many people the church is the last place on earth they would consider going for help.

My brothers and sisters in Christ, this should not be!

Since hearing my wife’s report my heart has been broken over my own ignorance and prejudice to the need around me, even in my own home.  I confess that over these past few months while my wife has been suffering my response has been less than holy.  On far too many occasions I wanted the problem to just go away.  Too many times I put my own needs before hers.  Too many times I resented what she was experiencing because it ran against my expectations of what I wanted our marriage to be.

When Amy tearfully pleaded with me that she felt very lost and alone and desperately needed me to be to her “Jesus with skin on” I shamefully told her I’m not Jesus and can’t bear that burden.

But that was just a cop-out.  While the part about me not being Jesus is true, it’s also false.   I am, for better or worse, the body of Christ.  And if you are a Christian, so are you.   When my wife and millions of others suffering from mental illness are looking for Jesus they are, for better or worse, seeing him in us.

I am heart-broken by the image they too often receive.

I believe with all my heart that the church is still the best hope for the world.  I know she has her flaws but, when she is at her best, she is a hospital for the broken, openly confessing that she does not always have it all together but faithfully points towards the One who does.   I will not defend the Church’s actions to the group members who confided in my wife their distrust apart from saying this:  Hurting people hurt people.   Perhaps our failure is our pride, not admitting our own weaknesses and powerlessness and, because we have deep-rooted hurts and fears ourselves we are unable (or unwilling) to look at yours.

The answer in all of this, I believe, is massive repentance on both a global and individual scale.    We must be able to hear the cries of those hurting around us, desperate to see Jesus with skin on, and repent for our inability or unwillingness to be with the least, the last, the lost and the lonely.  We must admit we ourselves need healing and a fresh filling of the Holy Spirit in order to carry out the work first begun by our Lord, who came not to be served but to serve.  Jesus said it’s not the healthy who need a physician, but the sick.  Jesus was drawn to the hurting and his compassion drew them to himself.   It’s difficult to imagine anyone suffering from mental illness saying of Jesus, “He doesn’t want me when I’m messy.”

Luke, a doctor and follower of Jesus, wrote that if we will repent, and turn again, our sins will be wiped out and times of refreshing will come from the Lord (Acts 3:19-20).   To be offered the opportunity to begin again is a gracious gift, and one we as a church must seize both for our own salvation and that of those looking to us for help.  We can trust that the Spirit of God will refresh us, enabling us to bear the brokenness of the world as Christ’s body must, so that it might be transformed into something new for the Father’s glory.

This repentance begins for me, and perhaps for you, with a desire to listen and learn.   I’m writing this post not because I have answers but because I’m seeking some.   I want to know how to better posture myself as a pastor, and my church, so that when people suffering from mental illness look at us they see Jesus with skin on.  Here are just a few ways I am presently striving to bear fruit in keeping with repentance and I invite you to improve upon these and offer more of your own.

  1. Talking about depression and mental illness from the pulpit. I recently concluded a sermon series titled, “When Life Hurts.”  Here is a small taste from the first of that series:

If you are struggling with depression or other mental illness today I want you to know that you are not alone.  I want you to know that you don’t have to carry the weight of shame or guilt. I want you to know that you are worthy of love and that there isn’t a dark place on earth or in your mind that you can go that Jesus isn’t there with you.  I want you to know that there is no judgment or condemnation here. I want you to know that I find it to be spiritual malpractice when the church can safely ask for prayer for a loved one who has diabetes and needs to be on insulin in order to live but we feel ashamed to say I am struggling with depression and need some medicine to help me survive.    Where and when that happens to you, here me please – I’m sorry.    I’m sorry that has happened to you.  I’m sorry that you have been judged when what you most needed was love.   I’m sorry.

I’ve read that very few pastors talk about mental illness from the pulpit.  This must change.   In your church and mine are many who are suffering from mental illness – alone and silently – and they wonder each week, Does God have a word for me?  Will these people still love me if they knew my secret?    Assure them, routinely, that the answer to both questions is a resounding YES.

  1. Repeatedly affirming that the church is a hospital for the broken and not a morgue for saints. We say this a lot in our church and over the last several months it has begun to take root.  We lift up the values of humility and vulnerability and I strive, by God’s grace, to model these from the pulpit.   We began praying last year that God would make us the kind of people who want the sort of people nobody else wants or sees.  That certainly includes the people in my wife’s therapy group.   I’m growing increasingly confident that anyone can walk through the doors of our church and feel at home, like it’s a place where they can find hope and healing alongside others who are seeking the same (whether they are seasoned Christians or presently agnostic).
  1. Launching a recovery ministry. We have just launched a recovery ministry where every Thursday we offer a free meal, a worship service with a recovery related message followed by open share groups for things such as chemical addiction, sexual integrity and grief, pain and loss.   These are safe groups where people dealing with life’s hang-ups, including depression, can come and share their struggle with people who are on the same journey.   Here we get real, acknowledging that it’s our secrets that make and keep us sick.

These are just some of the ways we are trying to put skin on Jesus in our small neck of the woods.  My hope is that this post will generate discussion about how we can do better at addressing the needs of those suffering silently with mental illness all around us, both in our pews and out.   If you battle mental illness please consider sharing in the comments, anonymously if you like, how we can better serve you.   How can the church better serve your needs?

May our massive repentance lead to massive change in hearts so that we may never again hear it said of the body of Christ, “They don’t want me when I’m messy.”