Brace yourselves, this is a long one.
Sometimes, God wants us to stretch and grow and He uses pretty interesting ways to get our attention. Like the people He sends into our lives and the things He asks us to do. Some years ago, after an encounter with a friend, I felt God speaking to me, saying, “I want you to reach out to the church on behalf of my gay children.”
As you can imagine, my first reaction was, “Huh?” I could almost feel God sighing, much the way I do with my kids when I know they’ve heard me but are being intentionally dense. I am pretty sure God said, “You heard Me.” I thought maybe I had misunderstood. God didn’t want me to reach out to LGBT people, He wanted me to reach out for them. I had no idea what that meant.
Now, if you had asked me even a decade ago if this would be my life, I would have said absolutely, unquestionably, emphatically, no. If you had asked me twenty years ago, I would have run screaming from the room. At that point in my life, I had been conditioned to believe that the gay community was the church’s version of Public Enemy No. 1.
A little background: That isn’t how I was raised. My family, at least on my mother’s side, is pretty tolerant and open to a lot of perspectives. The majority of my close relatives are non-religious (though most would claim to be spiritual in one sense or another). When I was a teenager, I did become religious. I came face-to-face with the Living God, and there was no way to deny His presence and power in my life. At that point, I joined the church in order to be part of a community of believers.
While much of what I learned at church was valuable, I also learned, from some of the members, a specific brand of hate. I have a close relation who is a lesbian, and I felt immediately that I would need to hide that fact. It was something to be ashamed of, or at least be horrified by. When I finally came clean to some friends, they weren’t sure how to respond. They made sympathetic noises, but I could tell that they were all relieved it was my family and not theirs. When I shared with adults, I was instructed to remind my relative (and any other family members who were supporting her “lifestyle choice”) that she was living sinfully and was outside God’s grace. I was led to believe that I was personally responsible for keeping her out of Hell. There are no words for how devastating and terrifying this was for an adolescent. I honestly felt the weight of the world on my shoulders.
Not only that, I had to endure years of hearing people say things like, “That’s so gay,” when they meant they disliked something. Guys routinely called each other “sissy” or “fag” to imply being less-than-manly in some situation—even in the church. Even now, some people just can’t keep their nasty comments to themselves. I have deleted more than one person from my Facebook friends list because of the inappropriate comments made about the LGBT community, individually and collectively. And lest anyone think that the church has stopped heaping abuse on people and that Fred Phelps is an aberration (he blames gays for pretty much everything), consider the fact that some pastors see it as their job to “educate” their congregations about the “causes” of homosexuality, reinforcing stereotypes rather than demonstrating God’s love and grace.
The way I was treated just for having a lesbian relative led me to act , myself, in some unloving ways. As a young adult, I had three friends attempt to come out to me, and I made it impossible for all of them. I rejected them, at least in that way, and for that I am deeply sorry. Thankfully, two of them have forgiven me. I have no idea what happened to the third, unfortunately. I regret my participation in the cycle of hate encouraged by some Christians.
Thankfully, through all of this, God kept speaking and I kept listening. Some wonderful people have come into my life, both gay and straight. Friends have led me to a variety of incredible resources.* Not only that, I learned that I am not the only straight Christian in this position and that there are people out there who have made it their life mission to close the gap between the evangelical community and the gay community. We don’t live in a perfect world, so the people, the relationships, and the methods are similarly imperfect. But there is hope.
I say all this because reaching out to help heal the hurt and abuse delivered by the church, and to prevent further damage, was a major relational challenge for me. Because of the hurt I myself had suffered, I was still afraid of being rejected for standing up and saying that it had to stop. Yet God wanted me to take those steps. It may have taken years to accomplish that work in my heart, but God (and my very forgiving friends and family) never gave up on me. I know there are other areas in which I need to extend grace to people, so perhaps that is what is next in God’s plan. At any rate, I had to make a move, reach out even when it was difficult, lonely, and painful. I had to take a risk, and I still see the consequences—there are people who don’t want much to do with me anymore. But I consider it worth it when I see the difference it has made in so many people’s lives.
Because you are not me, your passions and the people God wants you to reach will be different. Only you know what your struggles are. The world is still full of racism, classism, sexism, and a lot of other -isms. It might be hard for you to befriend people from certain parts of the world or who have different religious beliefs. Maybe you, like me, have been commissioned to build bridges between the church and people who have suffered at the hands of the church. Maybe all of this is too hard for you and for now, the most you can muster is tolerating people of a different political party. That’s a good first step, then. Everyone needs to start somewhere.
Who are the people God is challenging you to reach? Where do you need to take relational risks in order to be the love that someone needs?
*If you are interested in some of the resources I have collected over the years, contact me and I will be more than happy to help. A good start, and my earliest inspiration, is the film Lord Save Us from Your Followers.