Sunday, May 19, 2019

"Where's the Stuff?"

John Wimber, 1934-1997

Twenty five years ago I saw a video of John Wimber, the founder of the Vineyard Church, telling this story.  Wimber had been a musician playing the Las Vegas (NV-USA) circuit when he was invited to join The Righteous Brothers. He was, in his own words, ‘a beer-guzzling, drug-abusing pop musician’, who was then converted to Christianity at the age of 29 while chain-smoking his way through a Quaker-led Bible study.

Wimber started reading the Bible and couldn’t get enough of it.  He was particularly drawn to the life-changing miracles he found in the Gospels and in Acts.  After one particularly dull Presbyterian service (full disclosure: I was a Presbyterian most of my life and an ordained Presbyterian minister for 22 years.  I can vouch for the truth of that statement!), Wimber struck up a conversation with one of the leaders in the back after the service.

‘When do we get to do the stuff?’ he asked.  ‘You know, the stuff here in the Bible; the stuff Jesus did, like healing the sick, raising the dead, healing the blind - stuff like that?’

The man didn’t know quite how to respond.  ‘Um, we don’t do those things anymore.  We sing hymns and listen to prayers and the pastor preaches.’

To which Wimber replied: ‘You mean I gave up drugs for that?’

Have you noticed that wherever Jesus is, things happen?  Men and women leave their former lives behind to follow him.  People who are blind have their sight restored, both spiritually and physically.  The sick are healed.  People who are dead are raised to life and given back to their loved ones.  Men and women who are overwhelmed by their sins are forgiven and shown the way of repentance.  The men and women who are tormented by demons are set free.  People who are poor are helped and have good news proclaimed to them.  

And in the rest of the New Testament we see the same thing.  In the name of Jesus the Apostles and first Christians point people to Jesus and find men and women in their hundreds leaving their former lives behind so that they too can follow Jesus and be his disciple.  Christians pray in the name of Jesus and the lame are healed, the sick are restored to health, the dead are raised, the demonized are set free, and the churches fill with men and women who want to know Jesus and who want to become His follower.

But I have a question for you.  When was the last time you saw a blind person given their sight in a church?  When was the last time you saw a sick person healed in the name of Jesus?  When was the last time you saw a demon-possessed person set free by the power of Jesus’ name?  When was the last time we witnessed genuine repentance in our churches as men and women responded to the call and love of Christ?

Part of our problem is that we are surrounded by false churches and false prophets and false apostles who make huge claims and say that people have been healed under their ministries or delivered or even raised from he dead.  But if you listen to what they are actually saying, all the glory goes to them and to their own abilities as a so-called man or woman of God.  If the Holy Spirit were really at work through them, then all the glory would go to Jesus.  You can be sure that if people’s attention is being directed to Jesus through preaching or teaching or any kind of ministry, that the Holy Spirit is at work in that place and in the lives of those people.  Because it is simply what the Holy Spirit does, to direct your attention and mine to Jesus and to magnify Jesus in our eyes and heart and mind.  This is the purpose of genuine and legitimate acts of healing and deliverance, of genuine renewal and revival - when the Holy Spirit is behind it, we see Jesus, we are drawn to Jesus, we love Jesus more, we become more and more like Jesus.

Our great problem today when it comes to these things is that the devil is able to counterfeit just about everything that passes for a miracle among Christians today.  The devil can do miracles.  The devil can put on a show and cast out demons.  The devil can heal.  The devil can speak in tongues.  The devil can take possession of someone and make them fall to the floor.  The only thing the devil cannot do, will not do, is glorify Christ, the devil will not do anything that makes you love Christ more. The devil will not do anything that empowers you to love your neighbor. 

Sometimes I wonder if, in reacting to all the wrong ways, all the abuses going on in churches around us, that we Orthodox Christians have decided to have nothing to do with the Holy Spirit and his power and works in our lives and ministry. Sometimes it seems to me we have thrown out the baby with the bath water.  And so to escape the mistakes of others, we now ignore what the Holy Spirit can do, and wants to do in our hearts, in our lives, in our church. And as a result, our churches are spiritually barren.  We have services, we have sacraments, but we ourselves are like the walking dead.  Except for attending our services, our lives are pretty much no different from the pagans who live around us.  Except for church, many of us don’t really pray.  Almost none of us fast.  None of us go to confession.  Many of us don’t really trust Jesus for anything.  And if I asked you how does one become a Christian, hardly any of us would know what to say.  

When Jesus called us to follow Him and become His disciple, this sort of Sunday Christianity is not what he has in mind.  When Jesus says, on this Rock I will build my Church, and the gates of hell will not prevail against it - ours is not the Church that Jesus has in mind.  There is no difference between today and when Jesus was walking from village to village teaching and preaching and healing and delivering people from the devil.  There is no difference between today and when the apostles were preaching and teaching and healing and delivering people in Jesus name.  The same Holy Spirit that they had is the very same Holy Spirit that is with us.  The only difference is that they actually believed Jesus could make a difference in their lives and the lives of the people around them.  They asked the Holy Spirit to fill them and use them to glorify Jesus, and they gave themselves to loving God with everything they had, and loving their neighbor with everything they had.

When I was a teenager, the Presbyterian church where I had grown up and become a Christian began to experience renewal.  The pastor and members began reading the gospels and the rest of the New Testament with new eyes - they saw that God gave his Holy Spirit specifically to empower each of us individually and the church as a whole to love Christ more and more and to be his love in the lives of the people around us.  That’s why the Holy Spirit gave spiritual gifts, to empower this love.  And people began praying and asking God to fill them with the Holy Spirit and to give them the spiritual gifts that would empower them to love Christ and do the ministries He was calling them to do.  As a result, people became Christians, especially a number of young people like me.  And there were several dramatic instances where the Holy Spirit intervened in someone’s life to direct everyone’s attention to Jesus.  Let me tell you about Betty.

Betty was a member of our church.  She and my mother helped with our youth group by preparing supper for us every Sunday night.  She was the mother of four sons, the two younger ones were friends of mine.  Her husband, Ray, was an Ob-Gyn, but he really disliked Christianity and never came to church.  Betty began to experience some alarming symptoms and went to the doctor.  Tests discovered a large tumor in her bowels.  The prognosis did not look good.  They scheduled emergency surgery for 7 AM the next morning.

Betty asked if the pastor and his wife and some of the church leaders would come and pray.  That night at about 8 pm they had a prayer meeting in her hospital room.  My mom was there.  The pastor anointed Betty with oil and they asked God to heal her.  And then they went home.

The next morning, they put Betty under and the surgeon began what he assumed would be a straight-forward operation to remove a tumor from Betty’s lower intestine.  But when he opened her up, he couldn’t find it.  There was no abnormal growth, no tumor, no nothing.  He looked and looked and finally he had to close her up.

Betty was in the recovery room with her husband Ray as the anesthesia wore off.  The surgeon came in to explain what he had done, and he said, ‘I’m sorry - when I went in to remove the tumor, there was nothing there.  I had the x-rays which pinpointed where I would find it, but it wasn’t there.  I looked and looked and there was nothing to find. So I simply had to close you up.’  Betty was stunned.  And her husband Ray was speechless.  He was a doctor and he knew just how serious Betty’s condition had been.  Betty gave glory to God.  She told the surgeon and Ray about the prayer meeting and that they had prayed last night that she be healed.

When word reached the church, you can imagine the rejoicing.  God had saved Betty from suffering and almost certain death .  But even more so, in a couple of weeks, Ray went to see the pastor.  He had resisted the claims of the gospel his whole life, but now he had witnessed something in his wife’s life for which he had no other explanation other than God himself had intervened.  He told the pastor that he wanted to know Jesus and follow him.  Ray became a Christian.

This is what happens when the Holy Spirit is at work.  People see Jesus for who He is.  People experience the life-changing power of the Holy Spirit.  Church becomes a place where people experience Christ, where people are filled with the Holy Spirit, where people experience the love of the Lord, where people find healing, and wholeness, and meaning, and purpose - where we find a new life in Christ.  This is what the apostles experienced.  This is what generations of the first Christians experienced.  This is what is ours to experience today.  Because Jesus is the same today as He was yesterday, and He will be the same tomorrow.  Because the same Holy Spirit who was working in their churches and in their lives then - the same Holy Spirit is right here today.

If we are content with lifeless churches and lifeless religion, God will leave us to our own devices.  But if we are hungry and thirsty for something more, our Lord will run to meet us.  He will bless us with hearts that want to repent.  He will pour out His Holy Spirit on you and me and all of us and fill us with love for Jesus and love for our neighbor.  He will empower us to live for him, to serve Him, to give ourselves for Him.  It is ours for the asking.  Jesus says, you have not because you don’t ask.  In Luke’s gospel, Jesus says, ‘If you sinful people know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask Him?’  (Luke 11:13) 

So if someone like John Wimber came to our service this morning and asked, ‘So where’s the stuff?  You know, the stuff that Jesus and the Apostles did?  When are you going to do the stuff here?’  What would you say?  You know it’s not that God has changed.  His power and the ability to do these things hasn’t changed, either.  Moreover God’s plan and purpose and desire for his church - for our church and for us His people hasn’t changed.  The only thing that’s changed is our openness to the Holy Spirit, our willingness to be filled by the Holy Spirit, to be used by the Spirit to demonstrate the love of Christ where we are.  Do you want what the Lord has to give?  Are you willing to ask for it?

My home church in Anderson, SC.  If it can happen here, it (the blessings of what God wants to do
in us and through us) can happen anywhere.
Even in an Orthodox parish.

A sermon preached on Sunday, May 19, 2019 
at St. Moses of Africa Orthodox Church, 
Kisumu, Kenya

Tuesday, April 30, 2019

Appropriate Thoughts on a Significant Birthday

There is a story told in the Sayings of the Desert Fathers about the last moments of Abba Sisoes the Great.

As he lay dying, his face began to shine as the sun. "See, Abba Antony has come," he exclaimed, adding a little later: "See, the choir of the apostles has come."  All the time his face grew more and more luminous.

Then he seemed to be talking to somebody, and the disciples standing round him asked who it might be.  "The angels have come to take me," he replied, "and I have asked them to allow me some more time - so as to repent a little."

The disciples were surprised.  "You have no need to repent, father," they objected.

"Truly," he answered, "I do not know within myself if I have even begun."

Then the radiance from his face grew yet more dazzling, and awe fell upon them all. 

"Look, the Lord has come," Abba Sisoes cried out, and so he died.

[Apophthegmata, alphabetical collection, Sisoes 14] 

Kallistos Ware writes:

Let us imitate Abba Sisoes.

When asked "Are you saved?" let us answer: "I do not know whether I have even begun to repent."

In the evening prayers used daily by Orthodox Christians there is a short petition attributed to St. John Chrysostom:

"O Lord my God, even if I have done nothing good in your sight, yet grant me by your grace to make a beginning."

That must surely be our prayer up to the end of our life.  The question to be asked is not, "Have I completed the journey of salvation?" The true question is "Have I even begun?"

Yet, with St. Nicolas Cabasilas, let us take heart from the fact that Christ is with us even now at every stage on that journey, our nightly lodging as well as our final destination.

Kallistos Ware,  How Are We Saved?  The Understanding of Salvation in the Orthodox Tradition  (Minneapolis, MN: Light and Life Publications, 1996), 65-57.

Friday, April 26, 2019

This Is How We Justify Murder Today

Polly Toynbee, an ideologist journalist for The Guardian, a UK news outlet, has just published an article 'Northern Ireland's Abortion Laws Are an Abomination - Westminster Must Step In [and force the desired change].  Her lead is that 'The Government must heed a select committee report - and end the brutal, primitivist treatment of women int he region'.  Let her words sink in.  Ms. Toynbee is saying that not allowing women access to so-called 'family planning services' is brutalizing women.  Therefore, they should, they must be given access to the medical facilities and personnel who are equipped to end their pregnancy.  Please notice the rhetoric.  Sparing no effort to maximize what laws intended to minimize resort to having an abortion are supposedly doing to, presumably, lots and lots of women.  But also sparing no effort to completely minimize what abortion is and what abortion does and why there might possibly be anybody opposed.  This is exhibit A as to why the issue of abortion is so polarized in our world today.  If there is an incapacity to hear the concerns of the other we are reduced to Ms. Toynbee's zero sum game.

At the level that Ms. Toynbee and millions of others want to have this debate, the issue is cut and dry.  We are keeping women from doing what they want to do with their body.  This is the essence of what it means, in Ms. Toynbee's words, to brutalize women.  Unfathomably, to me at least, is Ms. Toynbee's (and everybody for whom she presumably is speaking) complete inability to acknowledge that their solution to this brutalizing  women is to promote and even celebrate the grisly murder of innocent children.  Someone please help me understand why there is such hatred for such unfortunate infants on the part of these partisans!  Where is this coming from?  How is it that a movement can blister their enemies with invective for not allowing boys who identify as girls to use the women's restroom, and yet when it comes to a human life just like themselves, they think it necessary to destroy these babies!  Babies that are quietly, peacefully growing in their mother's womb are not little unwanted tumors that we can simply excise and send to the hospital incinerator. They are human beings, no different from Ms. Toynbee or me or you.  In fact all of us were there.  In that womb.  All of us.  That's how we came to be.  

To use inflammatory language (brutalized women) to justify the slaughter of innocents - we have seen this sort of justification for getting rid of unwanted populations in the totalitarian regimes that have erupted at different places on our planet, especially in the past 100 years.  No one wants to be treated as a nothing, or even worse, as someone who is perceived to be a cancer on the rest of society.  Ask the Armenians.  Ask the Tutsis.  Ask the Orthodox Christians of Soviet Russia.  Ask the Jews of Europe.  Ask the Yazidis.  Ask the Christians of Sri Lanka celebrating Easter.  Presumably Ms. Toynbee and her tribe would recoil from being treated in a similar manner.  And yet this is precisely what they are telling us to do the unborn.  This is not the solution to their loudly proclaimed problem.  It simply, terribly makes that problem infinitely worse, not just for the baby, but for everyone aiding and abetting each murder.

Why must the solution to unwanted pregnancies be the murder of the baby?  When did this ever become understood as normal, as expected, as a right?

There are many better other ways than taking an innocent human life who had nothing to do with the circumstances that brought them to be.  On this Orthodox Good Friday, it might be worth taking a moment to ponder why it is we have been put on this planet - to live for ourselves?  We see already the consequences of those choices destroying us and our planet all around us.  Or are we meant to live for something better, something higher?  We see the epitome of love in Jesus willingly offering himself as the sacrifice to undo the consequences of all the wrong we have done that has obliterated our relationship with God.  Our problem, fundamentally, is the absence of love in our hearts.  Without love, it is easy to live for oneself, and it is not too many steps to take before we are willing to remove anybody who gets in the way of that.  But no one with love in their hearts can be party to the willful murder of a child.   In the same way, no one with love in their hearts can allow the willful victimization of a woman.  There is a better way than government and medically sanctioned murder.  It's time for both sides to realize what is happening and come up with that better way.  And it's time for partisan ideologues like Polly Toynbee to stop asking women and men and doctors and our society and me to be party to murder.

Sunday, April 14, 2019

Hearing, We Do Not Hear

Who is probably the most famous Kenyan actress in the world today?  Lupita Nyong'o would get my vote.  Actors and Actresses are celebrities today.  They are rich and they are famous.  And whether they are in the movies or on TV, people want to see them and to know all about them.  Children want to grow up to be like them, either that or be a football star playing for the Premier League.

It hasn’t always been this way.  In ancient Greece and Rome, actors were despised instead of being celebrated like they are today.  Actors came from the lower classes.  Christians worried about actors who wanted to join the church because they were afraid that they came with a very sinful lifestyle.  When they were on stage, actors wore masks to show what character they were playing.  An actor might wear the mask of a king in the first act, and then wear the mask of a slave in the second act.  Of course in his real life he was neither a king nor a slave.

St. John Chrysostom is one of our Church’s greatest preachers.  He preached in Antioch in the 4th century, until he was chosen to be the Archbishop of the Church in Constantinople, the capital of the eastern Roman empire.  People who heard him preach thought he was one of the best preachers they had ever listened to.  They gave him the nickname ‘Chrysostom’ which means ‘Golden-mouth’.  St. John was very aware of what went on in the theaters of his day, and he knew that many people who claimed to be Christian still went and watched the plays.  He observed how so many people in his church felt that who they were was determined by what they had, by how rich they were or by how poor they were.  And not only were people looking at themselves on the basis of what they had, they were looking at their neighbors the same way.  And so to make his point, St. John uses the analogy of a play and the theater.  This is what he said so many years ago.  I think it still bites today.

For just as on the stage, actors enter with the mask of kings, generals, doctors, teachers, professors, and soldiers, without themselves being anything of the sort, so in the present life poverty and wealth are only masks.  If you are sitting in the theater and see one of the actors wearing the mask of a king, you do not call him fortunate or think that he is a king, nor would you wish to become what he is; but since you know that he is some tradesman, perhaps a rope-maker or a coppersmith or something of the sort, you do not call him fortunate because of his mask and his costume, nor do you judge his social class by them….  In the same way even here, sitting in this world as if in a theater and looking at the players on the stage, when you see many rich people, do not think that they are truly rich, but that they are wearing the masks of rich people.  Just as that man who acts the part of king or general on the stage often turns out to be a household servant or somebody who sells figs or grapes in the market, so also the rich man often turns out to be the poorest of all. [Second Sermon on Lazarus and the Rich Man. trans. Catherine P. Roth, St. John Chrysostom, On Wealth and Poverty (Crestwood, NY: St. Vladimir's Seminary Press, 1984), 46-47].

St. John names his audience’s snobbery and prejudice in a way that keeps them with him.  But his purpose is not to condemn, but to take them to an entirely different place, where God’s judgment will turn all of our prejudices upside down.  This, explains St. John, is why the rich man is actually the poorest:

If you take off his mask, open up his conscience, and enter into his mind, you will often find there a great poverty of virtue: you will find that he belongs to the lowest class of all.  Just as in the theater, when evening falls and the audience departs, and the kings and generals go outside to remove the costumes of their roles, they are then revealed to everyone appearing to be exactly what they are; so also now when death arrives and the theater is dissolved, everyone takes off the masks of wealth and poverty and departs to the other world.  When all are judged by their deeds alone, some are shown to be truly wealthy, others poor, some of high class, others of no account. [Second Sermon, 47].

Nonna Verna Harrison, from whom I got this quote, says that:

John is saying wealth, poverty, and social class are not our real identities as human beings.  They are roles we play and they are temporary.  Hidden beneath them is the human person that each of us truly is.  This is the person God sees, and it may be very different from the one others who are prejudiced see and judge.  John says, further, that our standing in the life to come depends on our virtues, that good character is what we can take with us.  Our character determines who we really are now and who we will be in eternity. [Nonna Verna Harrison, God's Many-Splendored Image: Theological Anthropology for Christian Formation (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2010) 49]

I think St. John is on to something important about the condition that all of us find ourselves in.  We are all like those actors on the stage in St. John’s time.  We are all wearing masks.  And we treat each other as if the mask is our reality.  We are all playing games, pretending that being rich is important, that getting political power is important, that there is such a thing as a big man or a big woman, that the poor, the uneducated, the marginalized are of no account.  But our way of seeing, our way of hearing, our way of judging is delusional.  No one keeps their mask.  We will all be revealed for who we really are.

I think one of the best examples of what St. John is talking about with his actors and their masks, and what we are doing today with our delusional thinking is in our gospel passage.  Jesus has just told his disciples again that His ministry will end in His betrayal and in a shameful death on a cross.  His disciples hear his words, but they cannot hear Him.  What Jesus is saying simply does not fit with their assumptions of what the Messiah should be and do.  They are hearing but not hearing.  The are seeing but not seeing.

James and John come to Jesus with a request.  ‘Make us your chief ministers when you come into your kingdom.’  These brothers have been with Jesus for three years and still they cannot grasp that Jesus is not doing His kingdom the way the world does kingdoms.  There will be no glory, no riches, no power, no big men.  And it’s not just James and John, all of Jesus’s disciples simply cannot comprehend that Jesus is going to do anything other than the world’s way of doing things.  They all want a piece of the pie.  They all want a seat at the table.  But Jesus says to them, and to us, ‘There is no pie.  This is not about chasing the Romans away and having our turn at the table.’  

All of us have learned from our culture that a successful life is an upwardly mobile life. In my country we call it the American Dream.  What do you call it in Kenya?  Climb the ladder of success. A higher degree. A better job, a bigger salary, a nicer house, a more expensive car, more power, more perks, more glory.  If you can get it by legitimate means, fine. But if you must use corrupt means to get it, well that’s fine, too.  Because the goal is to get it.  But Jesus is not leading his disciples, He is not leading us on the path of upward mobility.  And all of the churches around us that are led by apostle so and so and prophet so and so that say Jesus wants you to be successful and wealthy - they are lying, and they are leading the people who run after them away from the Gospel, away from Christ, and away from the kingdom of God.   

The Way of Jesus is not the way of upward mobility.  Instead, the way of Jesus is the way of downward mobility.  Jesus Himself is our example. Jesus left the glory of heaven and fellowship with the Trinity to live a human life.  He came down from heaven.  And as a human being he was born into a poor family.  His parents were refugees.  As a human being he came down even further into poverty and obscurity.  When God chose to become a man, He didn’t choose Rome or Athens as the site of His coming.  He chose a backwater province on the edge of the Roman empire.  And He did not seek the best place, the most important seat, the most powerful position; instead he came down even more - he became a servant, literally a slave.  And His way went even further down - He willingly suffered death for us.  But not just any death - the shameful death of a cross.  This is the way of Jesus, the way of downward mobility, it’s the way of love.  What James and John could not understand, indeed what all the disciples could not understand is that there are no big men in the kingdom of heaven.  Only men and women following Jesus on His path of downward mobility.  Only men and women learning how to love.  All the people in churches all around us who are working so hard to gain the whole world - Jesus says they are losing their soul.  All those people running everywhere to accumulate more and more money and stuff, more positions and power, Jesus says it’s harder for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for people like this to get into the Kingdom of heaven.  And for disciples like James and John, Jesus patiently explains again what His agenda is.  He doesn’t get frustrated with them and kick them out of his inner circle.  Instead He takes them by the hand, and they go together as Jesus goes down, down, down, all the way to the cross, as Jesus demonstrates precisely what He means by love, until the day comes and their eyes are opened, and seeing they see and they understand and are converted.

We are James and John.  Hearing Jesus, we do not hear.  Seeing Jesus, we do not see.  But he takes us by the hand, and patiently explains again just what he is doing.  Until the day comes and we get it.  The day will come when, like the Apostles, hearing, we hear.  Seeing, we see.  And we will understand who Jesus is and what He is doing, and we will give our lives to Him for Him to use.  For the world around us there is nothing higher than money and power and status and pleasure.  But for Jesus and those who hear and those who see, there is nothing higher than love, a live spent giving, not getting. 

In the end there are only two kinds of people in this world - those who are going Jesus’ way, and those who are going the world’s way.  Those who are wearing a mask and who care only about the masks others are wearing, or those who see and hear.  Who are you this morning?  Which way are you on?  Can you see?  Can you hear?

'Hearing, We Do Not Hear' was preached on Sunday, April 14, 2019, during Divine Liturgy at St. Moses of Africa Orthodox Church in Kisumu, Kenya

Saturday, April 13, 2019

Dear Mr. Buttigieg - An Open Letter

Peter Buttigieg on the Ellen DeGeneres Show this past week

Mr. Peter Buttigieg is the mayor of South Bend, IN and is running for the Democratic nomination for president.

Dear Mr Buttigieg,

I have read with both interest and increasing dismay at what seems to be your insistence, or rather, political strategy, of putting conservative Christianity in the worst possible light, and of your making use of our vice president Mr. Pence and his Christian faith as your whipping boy of choice.  You said in an interview with Ellen DeGeneres that you are not being critical of Mr. Pence’s faith, and that you have no problem with religion, that you are religious, too.  But your disavowals are disingenuous.  You qualify which religion is acceptable in your eyes and which isn’t when you say that you have a problem with religion being used to harm people, especially people in the LGBTQ community.  What you leave unsaid is that the LGBTQ community, of which you proudly proclaim yourself a member, believes that any position that does not give full throated approval, not only to any LGBTQ individual that identifies and acts as someone under the LGBTA umbrella, but to what is understood to be the ideological, cultural and political agendas of the movement is perceived to be ‘harming’ people, by thwarting the personal and corporate agendas of LGBTQ people.  This is an extraordinarily narrow minded and ‘bigoted’ stance to take.  Even so, it has increasingly become strident LGBTQ dogma to shame and bully anybody perceived to be in the way of LGBTQ ideology, especially Christians of the conservative type.  The way this strategy seems to work is that I, as a non-LGBTQ person, cannot disagree with either person or wider ideology without being labeled a bigot or being treated in the same manner to which Mr Pence and his family  is being subject.  As a religious person, you of all people know that one’s faith is meaningless unless it affects the way one lives and especially the way one relates to other people.  What you seem to be saying is that the only acceptable way of expressing Christian faith is the way you from your liberal/progressive Christian experience believe that faith should be expressed.  You seem to be saying that anyone claiming to be a Christian who believes other than the way you believe when it comes to accepting homosexual behavior within the culture and the church is being hypocritical and judgmental, and that only people like you are expressing genuine Christian love and virtue.  It is a clever position, one that is designed to put conservative Christians on the defensive, and to make the views you espouse to seem self-evidently true in contrast.  And you cap it all of by acknowledging your own homosexuality and committed gay relationship along with your membership in a Christian church and all but dare anybody to judge you.

Full disclosure.  I am a conservative Christian.  I have gay siblings and other family members whom I love and have a relationship of mutual respect despite our differences.  Unlike the impression given by members of the progressive wing of our current politics, I know it’s possible to disagree with someone and still love them and respect them as fellow human beings.  In a constitutional democracy ruled by law (and not a theocracy under the thumb of a particular religion or ideology), I fully agree that all of our citizens must enjoy equal protection under the law.  This includes gay people, Hispanic people, Black people, Cambodian people, and even privileged white males (like yourself) who are also conservative Christians (like myself).  As you know, we have courts to decide when one group is over-extending its rights to the deprivation of another group rights, or to decide individual cases of discrimination.  The law is rarely evenly applied, such is the nature of life as a fallen race and an imperfect society.  Blacks and Native Americans (and Gays and others) faced discrimination even when there were laws in place to prevent it.  In our lifetime we have watched the pendulum swing in the opposite direction to where discrimination against people like me is openly advocated (and executed) in education, media and in many corporations.  This discrimination (dare we call it ‘racisim’? Religious bigotry?) is justified by LGBTQ ideology and the related progressive ideologies clamoring for a seat at the table of power in today’s America.  But racism in the 20th century was also justified by an ideology that was accepted by most in its day.  I would hope that you would agree with me that discrimination, regardless of what ideological support lays behind it is always wrong, and that all sides should resist the temptation to resort to discrimination as a way to punish their ideological enemies.  But there is an even more important point I wish to pursue with you.

Back to the issue of disagreeing with LGBTQ individuals and with LGBTQ ideology.  First of all, the conservative Christian position that you are condemning as ‘hurting’ LGBTQ people has been the Christian position in the vast majority of Christian churches from the 1st through the 20th centuries.  The first three of those centuries, the Christian churches were not in a position to impose their morality on anyone in the wider culture.  Homosexuality was present (though not as its own culture or in the way that is understood as ‘gay’ today) within Greco-Roman culture, along with pederasty and pedophilia.  At no point did Christians at the time feel obligated to make an exception to allow homosexuals, pederasts or pedophiles in the church.  For the same reason, people in adulterous relationships remained outside the circle of the faithful.  People who abused alcohol, or who were violent towards their spouse, or who had swindled and stolen - it’s not that the church was creating its own space of ‘holier than thou’ from the rest of the world.  Its that someone who was being drawn towards Christianity, through their repentance, through the work of the Holy Spirit in their lives - they were becoming a new person, someone who loved God with all their heart and who loved their neighbor as themselves.  Such a person traded their own agendas and the world’s agendas for God’s agenda and began living a life that reflected their new identity.  As a result, there was no more internal room to live the life of a thief, or the life of a drunkard, or the life of a wife beater, or of a pederast.  To choose to stay in those places was to choose to remain in the broken and death-marked places to which our participation in humanity’s fall had taken each of us.  The good news of the gospel is that each person could be saved from the consequences of the choices they had made to move away from God, to be instead reconciled with God and given a new life with a new purpose and a new agenda.  This has always been the heart of what you call ‘conservative’ Christianity.

I can hear maybe not you but other people say, ‘What about Christians who treat people such and such a way, who used their faith to justify discrimination and slavery, who use their faith to justify treating LGBTQ people badly’, etc.  Yes there have always been bad actors amongst those who call themselves Christians.  Just like there are bad actors amongst the contemporary progressive movements, including LGBTQ people, who seem full of rage and hell-bent on revenge against anybody they perceive as blocking what they consider to be progressive progress.  I personally have felt the teeth of their discrimination, but that’s a story that I don’t need to go into here.  But just like you wouldn’t want the movement you are a part of to be judged by the excesses of a minority of zealots, so I would ask that people like you refrain from judging Christianity on the basis of what some individuals and groups (who are manifestly not Christians regardless of the label they give themselves) do in the name of their god or ideology.

The Christian Church, in its Orthodox, Roman Catholic, Protestant and Pentecostal manifestations has been reasonably clear over the centuries as to why it considered homosexual behavior wrong. With the increasing agitation of homosexuals within and outside the churches in the 20th and 21st centuries, Christians have been forced to look more closely at the reasons that homosexual behavior has been considered not appropriate for Christians.  You said that the Mike Pences of this world should realize that you did not choose to be gay.  That makes a wonderful soundbite, but you are again being rather disingenuous with your words.  First of all, being ‘gay’ actually is a choice.  ‘Gay’ as it is commonly used has to do with the subculture of people who have identified as homosexuals, be it male or female.  It is possible to be a homosexual and choose not to participate in gay culture.   So you are being misleading in your use of the terminology to describe yourself or people like you.  Secondly, people seem to think that sexual identity assumes sexual behavior.  But this also is a mistaken assumption.  It is possible to be heterosexual and to choose not to pursue sexual relations with another woman.  And it is possible to be homosexual and choose not to pursue sexual relations with another man (or woman if one is a lesbian).  The foundational issue is not whether one is ‘gay’ or ‘homosexual’, but rather of sexual attraction.  The vast majority of men and women (at least 95%) are born with a hardwired attraction to members of the opposite sex.  A very small minority (probably less than 5%) of men and women are born with an attraction to members of the same sex.  And there are others who, because of sexual abuse or other unfortunate experiences had the opposite sex orientation they were born with unhelpfully scrambled.  My observation is that there are a lot of hurting men and women who find themselves pushed (by peers, by social media, by experience) to identify as this or that letter of the LGBTQ alphabet, but they know something is not right.  It is total LGBTQ heresy to suggest that someone may have made a mistake and may not actually be gay or lesbian or trans or queer, but I think this is more a case of ideology redefining both truth and experience to make it fit what they need it to be.

You make a big deal about being a Christian who is also gay and supportive of LGBTQ agendas.  But thirty years ago such a church did not even exist.  And now you are presuming to judge ‘conservative’ Christians and their churches for not being good Christians.  In the meantime, your version of Christianity has no problem with gays, or gay sex, or gay marriage, nor with any of the other LGBTQ practices and agendas.  Nor does your version of Christianity have any problem with abortion, nor with abortion up until the day the baby is being delivered.  Presumably your version of Christianity would not take issue with infanticide, especially if the women’s movement came up with a reason why it was a good idea.  I could go on.  For each of the things I have mentioned, the Christian church has for very good reasons and for centuries said that these are things we cannot in good conscience support and that are morally wrong because they are destructive of both individuals, families and societies.  Your ‘church’ which supports all of these things has deliberately taken a position that is outside the orthodox understanding and practice of scores of generations of Christians.  The reason your episcopal church (and others like it) has done so is that several generations ago the leaders made the decision that the Bible is not authoritative in matters of faith and practice - that the Bible is full of mistakes, and that it is up to us to correct those mistakes and to bring what we believe and practice into the 20th and now 21st century.  In other words, the episcopal church replaced the authority of God’s Word with the authority of human reason.  So on all these areas of personal and public morality, for example, men and women decided that Holy Scripture was wrong.  They determined that what the church had taught before was no longer relevant.  They decided to rewrite Christian morality and come up with something better, as they saw it.  ‘We should support gays and lesbians (and now transgender and queer people) because that is the loving thing to do, and to have told them before that their sexual choices were wrong was wrong on our part.’  In other words, your church chose to change what the church has always believed.  And on what basis?  Because some elite academics thought that we can do this better.  And also, what the Bible was teaching was not in line with what our culture was telling us was right with respects to women’s rights and LGBTQ rights. So when the culture deviated from what progressive theologians and church leaders found in the Bible, the Bible was ditched in favor of the culture.

So yes, you are a ‘Christian’ and undoubtedly a very good one, according to the new way ‘Christian’ is defined by your episcopal church, and you belong to a ‘church’, at least according to the way ‘church’ is defined by your episcopal church, and you are practicing ‘Christianity’ at least according to the way ‘Christianity’ is defined by your episcopal church.  But just who is outside the mainstream here?  Are you really suggesting that 2000 years of church history and 95% of contemporary global Christianity must reorient ourselves to the ‘truth’ that your liberal/progressive church has discovered?  Or has your episcopal church perhaps moved further and further from the Christian gospel as it has been understood and handed down from Jesus and the apostles until now?  At the very least, you really should acknowledge that when you say ‘Christian’, and when the vast majority of people across the globe (including Mr. Pence) say ‘Christian’, you are meaning very different things.

Please notice that I am saying this things, and taking exception with you, and disagreeing with you while at the same time respecting you as a person, a man made in the image of God, and as someone who has lived a different life from me and made different choices than what I perhaps would have made.  Because I am a citizen of the same country as you and I respect our laws, I can tolerate you though we differ, just as I would hope you can tolerate me, though we differ.  But when it comes to the issue of church and Christianity, while I respect your right to disagree with me and with conservative Christianity, I would hope that you would see that your efforts to switch the tiny minority position of the episcopal church with the vast global majority on these controversial social issues and declare that the tiny minority represents real Christianity is not tenable.  Progressive Christianity has rewritten Christian morality to suit your chosen behaviors and lifestyles.  The god of progressive Christianity turns out to be much like a mirror; god looks an awful lot like whoever is looking in the mirror at any given time.  Your attempt to bait Mr. Pence into looking foolish is actually having the opposite effect - your efforts make it appear that you know neither history nor theology.  To pretend otherwise is to put ideology ahead of truth.  And I think that both of us could agree that when that has happened, especially in the past 100 years, it has not ended well.

In closing, this attempt to redefine Christianity on the basis of what you like and what you don’t like may create a religious space where you, and people like you, can feel good about yourself.  But that has never been the agenda of genuine Christianity, or the genuine Christian Church.  Genuine Christianity is a response to the call by Jesus to repentance, to deny oneself, to pick up one’s cross and follow Him as His disciple.  Genuine Christianity is not about being affirmed for my identity choices.  It’s about laying my identity down, laying down my rights and agendas, about acknowledging my wrong choices and the way those choices have hurt other people, it’s about finding forgiveness and a new life in Christ, it is about being transformed by the Holy Spirit so that I become increasingly like Christ, it’s about becoming a part of a community of men and women who love one another as they have been loved by Christ, it’s about being a part of God’s Kingdom coming here and now as it already is in heaven.

There are not a few men and women who are conservative Christians and who struggle deeply with same-sex attraction.  These men and women have chosen to believe what the read in the Bible, to believe what the Church has always taught from the beginning, rather than accept so-called progressive Christianity, with its rewrite of ‘embarrassing’ bits of Christian theology and morality.  Their attempt to re-form Christianity after their likeness has produced something which is no longer Christianity but which is its own thing.  Those conservative Christians who struggle with same-sex attraction often find it very difficult to deal with their conflicting desires.  There is, as you and other gay people have experienced, often little understanding and acceptance of their struggle in many conservative churches.  And often for the sake of self-preservation, they must remain anonymous.  But difficult as the struggle is, they feel they have found the truth, and that God will not abandon them, and the He will keep His promises and bring them safely home.  And rather than never dealing with the broken relationships and the broken sexuality and the broken behavior that they may experience, it is much better to acknowledge that things are not right and orient oneself to be made whole, rather than running with a crowd that cannot, for ideological reasons, admit that they might be wrong, and broken, and need a Savior.