I had dinner with a friend of mine the other day at Bistro Boudin, a delightful place right on Fisherman’s Wharf in San Francisco. While the Dungeness Crab Cake sandwich was good, the Apple “Upside Down” Sourdough Bread Pudding was, in a word, orgasmic. The food, however, was not the main thing I took away from the night. It was part of the conversation we had about those around us.
She began to tell me of a friend of hers that by all counts was a great person, but she struggled with her friend’s homosexual lifestyle. She wanted to have one of the standard “Christian conversations” with her friend about their place in God’s economy, giving up the lifestyle, etc. etc. Now, this was not just a quest for a notch on her religious belt, for she truly cared for her friend, but like most of us, had trouble reconciling her upbringing and teaching with the world around her.
Personally, I tend to be middle of the road on certain things. Rather, I think I am on a completely different highway sometimes. Not uncommitted to my ideals, for I am pretty hardcore in my beliefs, but I am less dogmatic than most, yet not as liberal as others. I just don’t follow convention all of the time, I guess. I thought a lot of what she was saying, and how divisive this issue is for the church. I also thought about the fact that the gospel is supposed to set us free as opposed to lock us into a bondage. I saw some of the scriptures I had grown up with in a different light, not just in a way to make her feel better, but in a way to really understand what it means to be free in the gospel, and how we as Christians are to relate to this world.
The story of the woman caught in adultery (or so the allegation goes) came to mind. A bunch of hyper religious guys “found” a woman who was committing adultery. They didn’t care for her at all, and in the context of the story, really didn’t care about the law they were trying to live by. They wanted a reason to kill Jesus, and tried to manipulate the situation by appealing to Jesus’ sense of “right” as opposed to his sense of compassion. Long story short, if He forgave her, He was an enemy of the faith – if he condemned her, he would watch her die. Kind of like the Kobiashi Maru test on Star Trek – it was a no win option. Somehow, we in the church have come up with the idea that what we present to the world is just like that – a no win option, and then wonder why the world doesn’t want to have anything to do with us.
I continued to think about the story, and was struck by Jesus’ words to the woman, after he dismissed the accusers. We have always read it as “go and don’t commit adultery anymore – I know you’re guilty, and you know it”. In reality, though, that’s not what He said or even meant. Jesus exhibited the true power of the gospel. He didn’t limit the woman by the act (real, supposed, or otherwise), he acknowledged the woman and gave her a path to freedom. “Go and sin no more” was not a warning, but a release. It was not a statement of dealing with what the accusers were focused on, but it was a statement about her whole life. “You don’t have to live under the power of sin any longer.”
I then thought back to the discussion. My friend’s friend was being categorized by an act. By a portion of their life. She was trying to take the speck out of his eye while minimizing the power and effect of global sin in hers and everyone else’s life. Not intentionally, but by habit and tradition. There was so much more to her friend than this label, this act, even this lifestyle, and it is the whole package that Jesus loves.
I’m not saying that everything is right and acceptable when it comes to loving people, but I am saying that loving people is the main thing before loving what people do. And, if we are willing to truly love people for who they are, we will have the ability to speak into their lives what is appropriate, when it is appropriate. Sometimes that doesn’t even take words, but living in the freedom of the gospel in front of them while we love them.
Last night I was talking to another friend about growing up “black”, and one thing that I have always been glad about was that my parents raised me to recognize people before I recognize their attributes. I’ve dealt with my fair share of prejudice, for sure, but I still hold onto the fact that people are people first, and as a person, they have so much to offer me, not just because they are black, or hetero, or democrat, or earthling… I love being more than “just a black man” or “just a preacher” or “just a sinner” or… I am more than the labels that people place on me. So are you. So is the person next to you.
Some years ago, I volunteered to be part of the wait staff at a posh hotel for Christmas time. Not my normal job, but I made a little extra money and got to dress up. How can you go wrong with that? I served a number of people that were there for Christmas parties, feeling very important, and who treated me and the rest of the wait staff with mild contempt – they had made it in industry, and we were just the hired help. I remember thinking that they had no idea who was serving them. I was not just a waiter. It makes me think now when I am in a restaurant or wherever – those that I am dealing with are so much more than their tag and title says. That in itself makes me want to treat those serving me with respect and to show my appreciation to them for their hard work. I try to see them as people: As Carl, and Mickey, and Angela, not as the cook or the waiter or the busboy…
I talked to my friend about being inclusive, about not focusing on this one area of her friend’s life, but on focusing on the whole person. Only then will any openness to the gospel happen, because the gospel is not the gospel if it only addresses specific actions in our life. I suppose that makes me a radical (in some circles it would make me a heretic), but the gospel is radical. Jesus was the friend of the IRS and sinners – not for notches on his religious belt, but because he truly loved people with all of their flaws and quirks. He loved them enough to offer them a freedom from the labels. A freedom to be more than they had been told they were.
I have another friend who has started a movement, called J’s Love Project. I haven’t told her this yet, but I think I have learned more about my own faith through her project than a month of sermons, because it is all about loving people on purpose, without reservation. I love the fact that each time she gets to a plateau in the project, she is challenged to love deeper, love harder, love stronger. The wonderful thing about it is it is not just her who is doing this. There is a following that continues to grow, and I am one of those who is knee deep in the project. Seeing people who are intent on trying to show true love and making this a part of their lives is indescribable, and so fulfilling.
The conversation with my friend ended wonderfully, and we finished up by digging into the bread pudding (if you don’t go for anything else, go for that).