Belonging

14155649582_ce5f7d202b_k I was listening to a sermon recently (“The Gospel of John 9:35-41”) and the pastor pointed out how in the story of Jesus healing the man born blind (John 9), the sequence of events isn’t quite what we would expect. This man is rejected by his religious community, but Jesus receives him and meets the man’s physical need by restoring his sight. Then, the man is persecuted by the Pharisees. Finally, the man is called to believe in Jesus Christ. It’s a strange sequence for a spiritual journey: first physical healing, then persecution, and ultimately belief. This begs the question, in the lives of those around us, are we willing to let God work things out differently than we might expect?

Most churches today function according to a policy that people have to behave and believe prior to belonging. However, it has been suggested that a better approach is one in which people belong, believe, and then behave. Understandably, it is difficult for churches to navigate this triad of values because it raises difficult questions: Does belonging mean that people are eligible for leadership? Does this encourage doctrinal pluralism? Which doctrines are essential and which are nonessential? Instead of getting caught up in where people draw the line on these issues, what’s important is that churches start placing more emphasis on belonging first and foremost.

Even when people believe differently, it is possible to create an inclusive community. Barbara Brown Taylor explains this well in her book Home By Another Way. She writes, “If you and I are walking toward each other on a public sidewalk, our differences do not matter. We make room for each other. We may even nod and say hello. Our community at that point does not depend on our being in agreement with each other about anything except that we will share the sidewalk, where we both belong.” At church, everyone should know and feel that they belong. A sense of belonging is evidence of Christ’s love being expressed – people aren’t viewed as projects, and relationships aren’t undermined by an agenda. You just belong. And gradually, we come to realize that, as Leonard Sweet writes in Summoned to Lead, “We need each other: not just this other and that other, but each other. Every other.” May we realize the value and necessity of welcoming each and every other.

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Stigma (A Meditation on 1 Corinthians 10:13)

6273173_orgYes, this verse is about temptation, but what jumped out at me when I heard it again as the pastor delivered his sermon last Sunday was the phrase “except what is common to man.” Even for Christians who believe that homosexuality is a sin, they must recognize how accurate Paul’s words are in this verse. The desires and longings at the core of an LGBT person are the same as those of a straight person: love, intimacy, belonging, acceptance, to be known, to be valued. The bottom line is that the stigma of being LGBT has to go. Specifically, we must stop stigmatizing LGBT people in the Church.

In the book An Imperfect Offering, James Orbinski writes about “a way of seeing that requires humility so that one can recognize the sameness of self in the other” (4). Although he is referring to humanitarianism, the message is also applicable here. I pray that as Christians, instead of giving in to the natural tendency to emphasize our differences and divide into “us” and “them” categories, we would be open to this new way of seeing – recognizing ourselves in others with a spirit of humility.

A Better Way Forward

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Rev. Dr. Ken Fong is the senior pastor at Evergreen Baptist Church of LA and a fellow bridge-builder between the Church and the LGBT community. His current project, a documentary film, will specifically focus on how to create a better way forward for the Church and Christians who identify as part of the LGBT community.

Pastor Ken also led a seminar on this topic at the Urbana 2012 missions conference. In sharing part of his journey, he recounts how in college he witnessed gay people being bullied. Even though he didn’t participate, he also didn’t come to their defense and now realizes that his silence “was an affront to God.” Pastor Ken now feels called to use his reputation for the benefit of those at the intersection of the Christian and LGBT communities. He acknowledges the two common church models: “welcoming and affirming” and “welcoming but not affirming,” but is content with neither. Instead, he proposes an “open and mutually transforming” construct, which he explains further:

“Church should be open to all sinners, but all sinners, straight and gay, when they come to church, they need to be open to the ongoing transforming work of God’s Holy Spirit. Now that doesn’t mean that all people who start off with same-sex attraction are one day going to be straight, but I think there are still some transformations in all of us that can occur.”

While some may be quick to dismiss this approach as a semantically disguised equivalent of “welcoming but not affirming,” to do so would be to miss the caring, loving heart behind Pastor Ken’s idea. To get a good glimpse, skip to about an hour and nine minutes into the seminar presentation where he tells the story of his interaction with a gay man who started coming to his church. Pastor Ken admits that as a church, they have certain expectations, but he is also honest about the fact that “when you meet real people that you’ve come to love, you find that you hold the expectations and these people’s lives kind of together in this tension.” Furthermore, he believes that the only important question is simply, “which way are you heading? Are you heading toward Jesus or away from Jesus?”

For those of you who listen to Pastor Ken’s presentation in its entirety, I’m sure you will have your criticisms as I have my own. However, I’ve chosen to withhold commentary on those for now in favor of highlighting the many admirable aspects of Pastor Ken’s undertaking. He seems to me a humble, obedient man willing to live in the tension without having all of the answers. He admits that this is not black and white and is in the process of trying to figure it out, as we all are. Thanks Pastor Ken!