Monday, March 21, 2011

God Wins (Part 1)

Love Wins: A Book About Heaven, Hell, and the Fate of Every Person Who Ever LivedA lot of people are calling out Rob Bell for his new book Love Wins: Heaven, Hell and the Fate of Every Person Who Ever Lived.  Many of them are calling him a universalist and a heretic.  Plenty of other people are calling out the people calling out Rob Bell, calling them pharisees and slanderers.  It's a calling out fest that has turned into a calling out calling out fest.  Let's hope it doesn't go any further.   It will be like when they came out with radar detector detector detectors (no joke).

Very few of them have read the new book.
I have.

 Now that I've read it and have an educated response, I'm in a difficult position.  The climate is hostile.  There are pre-concieved notions.

If I so much as compliment the cover art, there is a whole camp of theological snipers waiting to label me an emergent heretic.  "Ge the matches and the lighter fluid!"  On the other hand, if I so much as hint that I have concerns about Bell's theological method, there is another camp waiting to label me intolerant and narrow-minded fundamentalist.  "Bring your latest Brian McLaren book.  It's time for a Generous Beat Down!"

What has happened to the theological climate of the Church when we are known by out alignment or disagreement with a popular Christian author?  Half of us have created a climate that lashes out at the most insignificant theological miss-step.  The other half labels as unloving all legitimate attempts at biblical correction.

We have lost our way.  We have no more True North, no more standard.  We don't know Christ's palm Sunday transportation from a hole in the ground.

What if we approached this topic from a whole new (or very old) direction?

What if we actually formulated our opinion on a theological matter based on God's redemptive self-revelation in Scripture?  What if we actually started there?

I'm issuing a challenge on the comments board.
Answer this question: Will people suffer eternal punishment in Hell?

Here are the rules:
  • You can't call a friend to ask their opinion.
  • You can't reading a popular author on the topic. (no Rob Bell, no John MacArthur, no Ronald H. Nash--scholarly lexicons and translation tools are acceptable)
  • No statement can be made without a reference to an contextually applicable biblical reference.  
  • Make a genuine effort to put aside your pre-conceived notions about the topic. 

So, will people suffer eternal punishment in hell?  Tell us what the Word says.

Thursday, March 10, 2011

Feeding People

“Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world.  For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat... --Matthew 25:34-45a

This passage made me uncomfortable several years ago.  It is one of those passages that gently nudges me again and again, reminding me that living surrendered is about more than showing up at church on Sunday.  

I can't get over the fact that while Scripture is clear that we are saved by grace, it is also clear that we are known by our works.  Jesus fed the hungry, clothed the naked and healed the sick.  Becoming like Him means I should too.  

That verse is one of the passages that has motivated Open Door to launch Garden Initiative, a volunteer ministry that gives food gardens to families in urban settings.  Each garden can be placed on any surface and will feed a family of four for a year!  

On May 21st, Church of the Open Door and several other groups that have rallied behind the cause will meet in Downtown Elyria to distribute gardens to 1,000 needy families.  We are going to feed 4,000 families for a year!  

In order for this to happen, we need you to support the project.  Each garden costs us $20.  That covers everything (Gardensoxx, compost, plants and a watering can)!  Every $20 we receive feeds a family of 4 produce for a year.  

It get's better!  We just launched a fundraising program that will allow donors to get the garden experience too.  If you donate $40 to the Serve Elyria Garden Initiative, we will give you a garden and give a garden to one of our needy recipients.  

Will you help feed families in Northeast Ohio?  Click here to donate.  

For more information visit    

Friday, March 4, 2011

Born this Way

Ever since Lady Ga Ga arrived at the Grammy Awards in a giant womb, propelling her single, "Born this Way" into the Pop Billboard Stratosphere, the internet has been ablaze with enough gay conversation to make Elton John look tame enough to sing with Jerry Falwell Ministries.  Given that a lot of people ask me what I think on the issue (Homosexuality, not Elton John singing for Thomas Road Baptist Church), I thought it was time to start a discussion here.

Growing up in a conservative Christian home meant the issue of homosexuality was something abstract, something that existed only as a political or religious (not a personal) issue.  I didn't know any homosexuals, and the only person I knew who knew one was a woman whose husband left her and her 3 kids to pursue a extramarital homosexual affair.  I can't say that I hated homosexuals, but seeing my friend hurt didn't help me like them.  All I knew was what I had heard the Bible said about homosexuality and the few bad experiences my friends and family had endured.  The issue of homosexuality was easy to either ignore or take a radical stance on, because I had no personal connection to it.

That was going to change.  Will (not real name) served with me in a young men's ministry several years ago.  It's hard to explain how I could tell, but I was pretty sure that Will was gay.  It wasn't that he fit into a lot of the stereotypes, though he had a few of them.  He liked dance and paid attention to style, but a lot of us were into style.  It was the dawn of the "metrosexual" and we were all trying to look nice for the girls.  It wasn't a stereotype thing that gave Will away.  There was something else about him.  It was like being a man didn't come naturally to him.  It wasn't that he didn't fit in.  He just didn't seem comfortable being a guy in the way the rest of us were.  While we all liked him, I think all of us knew he was different.

Regardless of the signs, in a conservative Christian ministry everyone assumes that everyone is straight.  So, everyone assumed Will was straight, no questions asked.  From a social perspective, Will fit in almost perfectly.  In fact, he and I had a lot of good conversations about spiritual matters.  We even had a talk about a hot girl once (This was before I met my wife who is hott with two t's, trumping all others in my eyes).  I remember the conversation about the girl, because it was the one thing that made me think Will might be straight.  The fact that I had to look to find one thing should have told me something.  Over time, it became clearer that Will was struggling, but I don't think everyone noticed.  Not knowing Will's struggle, a well-meaning friend hoping to give a well-meaning jab to what he thought was a heterosexual friend said something like, "Will is like having a woman around."  I think he was talking about Will's caring manner.  He might have even meant it as a compliment (in a tough guy joking kind of way), but I think it cut Will pretty bad.  Time passed and Will pulled away from the group, not because people didn't want him around but because (I believe) he was afraid to tell us what he was going through.  I watched Will dissolve or distance his relationships over the course of a few years before coming out a year or so after he left the ministry.  I still wish I'd sat down with him one day and just said, "Will, I love you no matter what.  What's going on, brother?"  I didn't, and I wish I did. (As soon as I typed this paragraph, I sent a message to will saying this very thing.  Will said that it meant a lot to him.)

Watching a person deal with homosexuality doesn't necessarily change your view of an issue.  It makes the issue less important than the person.  I look back on my friendship with Will and my heart fills with compassion.  Here was a man with plenty of friends who loved him, but was afraid to tell them what was going on.  He struggled alone.  Sometimes I wonder how we would have responded if he told us he was gay. Would we have tried to start him on some program to change?  Would we have freaked out and treated him differently?  Would we have just loved him?  Would we have been at a complete loss?  I think the fact that we all loved him already would have kept anyone from having any extreme reaction, but we would have had no idea how to react.  We probably would have still cared for him, but would have felt awkward and had no idea what to do.

I think as believers, and brothers and sisters in Christ we should know what to do.  We should know how to react when any person opens up to us about something they have been afraid to tell us, especially if it has some social stigma attached to it.

Maybe God had that in mind when He brought me to Open Door.  I remember hosting in our Ralph Neighbour Service when we first started.  A man came up to me and I could almost instantly tell he was gay.  He asked to talk to me and shared the struggle he was in.  I don't know that I was any practical help, but I was able to affirm that God loved him and so did this church.  Somehow, the memory of my friend Will, the love I had for him filled me up and made it easy to love this hurting man who needed to know that God loved him. I had a small ministry to a hurting man, a ministry God had equipped me for years before.

A few weeks later I got a card from him saying thanks for the prayers.  "That was one of those rare ministry moments," I thought "probably won't run into many other homosexuals while in ministry."  Ministry naiveté is a funny thing.  Since that day, God has continually brought homosexuals across my path looking for the love of God and spiritual support.  I even hear of word getting around to "Dorothy" that Pastor Dan is the guy to talk to if you have questions about God and homosexuality.

I have to say that I have grown to love the outcasts of our society more than I ever imagined I would.  It is a joy to live Christ's love to people who (often) don't expect to get it from the church.

Now, I can guess what many of you are thinking right now: Does Pastor Dan ever call out their sin?  Has he become so accepting that he doesn't care about what the Word of God says about homosexuality?  

If you know me well, you know that I care deeply about the revealed truth of God in Scripture.  And, all of my homosexual friends know where I stand on the issue.  Here is how the conversation usually goes:
  • They ask me what I think.  (Strangely, I don't ever bring it up.  They often want to know where I stand or what the Bible says about the issue.  I see this as God opening the door to conversation.)  
  • I tell them that God loves them and I love them, and that is the most important thing they need to know.  Really, the rest is details.  
  • I clarify some important points.  Most importantly, I differentiate between their same-sex desire and the action of homosexual sex.  I learned from my gay friends that they aren't bluffing when they say they were "born this way."  Like the rest of us, they see their sexual orientation as a part of their identity.  It is a dangerous thing to say "God hates homosexuality" when a gay man really believes God created him gay.  What he hears is "God hates you."  There needs to be a defining of terms.  
  • Specifically, I point to 1 Corinthians 6:9-11 which refers to homosexuality as a sin.  In fact, it get's pretty serious and says that homosexuals (among others) will not inherit the Kingdom of God.  That's a scary thing for a gay man to hear when he sees his homosexuality as a part of who he is.  I dig into the passage and talk about how it is referring to continuing in the action, not the orientation.  In other words, having same sex desires is not a sin.  You are not disqualified from heaven because of your desires.  However, God takes it seriously when anyone continues in sin unrepentant, having no concern for how God feels about it.  (This is also the point where I tell them that if I am somehow misinterpreting the passage, I'd love to know.  They know I mean it.) 
  • I usually reiterate that this is referring to continuing (unrepentant) in sin.  The idea seems to be that it is a choice to continue in the action that is a problem, not the fact that you sometimes sin or continue to be tempted.  
  • I also remind them that homosexuality is not some kind of uber-sin that somehow is worse than all the others.  I often use this as my opportunity to apologize on behalf of a lot of us Christians.  For some reason we all got really upset about this one.  I don't know why.  1 Corinthians 6:9-11 also calls out adultery, greed and slander (among others) and seems to consider them just as bad as homosexuality.  I think I would wager that slander (gossip) is far more prevalent and causes far more damage than homosexuality.  If we scared gossipers enough to stay "in the closet" about that sin, American churches could evangelize the entire continent of Asia with all the extra energy not spent on dealing with church conflicts.  I seriously hate gossip.  
  • I often mention that my goal is not to make them straight.  My goal is to see them become like Christ.  I know of some who saw God change their desires.  I know of others that continued to have same-sex attractions.  Orientation change has nothing to do with my goals as a pastor.  My goal is to see people become like Christ.  If their homosexual desires leave them, great.  Their life just got easier.  If not, great.  God is going to use their struggle to make them more like Him.  Either way, it is for their good and His glory (Romans 8:28-30).  I know this is easy for me to say, but it is true.  
  • By the way, communicating to a gay man or lesbian woman that God is asking them to surrender their sex life to Him is essentially like asking them to commit to a life of celibacy.  God doesn't promise to change their sexual desires.  He might, but He might not.  I usually point to the fact that we can't overcome sin on our own.  We have to trust the Holy Spirit's work in our lives.  It is an interesting thing.  We can't not sin (regardless of what our personal sin is).  However, we have to act on faith to obey God.  When we do, the Spirit of God empowers us to obey and we don't sin.  It is a terrifying, exciting, wonderful, and painful experience.  This is why we call it an adventure.  
  • I also affirm that regardless of how they live their life, they are welcome in this church and will be loved.  
  • Usually, they thank me for my openness and stick around the church.  We have a growing number of gay men and women attending regularly.  
  • The Holy Spirit continues to do His work.  I avoid doing His work for Him.  
Here's where things get tricky.  Gay men and women love our church!  I think this is great.  However, it puts me in a position to make a hard decision.  What does a person do when they love their church?  They want to serve.  Homosexuals are no different.  Many of them have not repented of homosexuality, but may be working through other sins.  They love God and the church and want to serve.

So, what should I do?  If I allow them to serve, am I condoning their life choices?  Are there certain things I should allow them to do and certain things I shouldn't?  If I tell them "no" do I need to go about asking gossipers and adulterers to step down? (By the way, historically we have done that.  We don't allow gossip to continue unrepentant without being dealt with.)   What do I do about the new Christian or pre-Christian who is in a heterosexual relationship outside the bonds of marriage and wants to serve?  The reality is that God doesn't deal with all of our sin at once.  He seems to convict us of just a few at a time.  What do I do about the person who continues to repent of sin and grow, but God hasn't dealt with their gossip or homosexuality yet?  They are moving toward God, should I tell them they have to wait until they are fully clear before they can serve?  Serving is how many of us grow and are convicted of sins in the first place?  Should I let gossipers and thieves serve in hopes God will use their service to convict them?  There is a lot to figure out here.

Here is my open invitation to anyone who feels like an outcast from the Church:  I love you, and you are welcome at my church.  There is a lot to untangle here, and I'm sure we will have plenty of misunderstandings and offenses.  But, let's walk through this together.  We are an imperfect church that is here to love imperfect people as we all become like Christ together.