Loving the lepers in our land

lepers1I walked into my local hair cuttery place this week to relieve my sweaty head of its growing mop. I was greeted by “Anna,” a young, thin woman, with long black hair and a sleeve full of tattoos on one arm. I was drawn immediately to her warm smile.

As I sat, we made small talk about the hot weather, her long hair, our children, our siblings and the city where we live. During the conversation she alluded to a strict, Christian upbringing and how she grew up as the homeschooled daughter of an ultra-conservative Baptist minister. With that brief summary of her life, her tattoos suddenly became much more interesting to me. I asked about her conservative parent’s reaction to the controversial, visible art on her arm. Within 5 minutes of conversing, she casually admitted to me she was a lesbian. So much for light conversation.

As I sat in her chair, losing hair rapidly, I was amazed at her transparency. Talking to a total stranger, she just shared something so intensely personal that it literally takes most people years to admit. As the talking continued, I quickly realized we were no longer in the kiddie pool of conversation. Somehow, we dove immediately into the conversational deep end and showed little sign of coming out of it. By the time I was done, I had shared a bit about my religious/ministry background, sordid past and some of the broken pieces called my life. By now, there is a small poodle on the floor next to me, known formerly as my hair. I was pretty sure that if the conversation continued at this depth, I would be bald in record time.

“Anna” and I were separated by age, gender, race, sexual orientation, culture, tattoos, political affliliation & family background. Yet, somehow I felt oddly close to her. Moments earlier, she was a total stranger. In just 15 minutes, she was a kindred spirit, even though our experiences were quite different.

Since church was obviously a big part of her upbringing, I asked where she went now. Knowing most of the churches in this “Bible-buckle” town, I was curious as to where she would feel comfortable attending. Not surprisingly, she doesn’t go anywhere anymore. Though I was sad to hear it, I completely understood why. Where does a “real sinner” go to church? What church in my city would preach the truth and still accept a living out loud lesbian? Most churches tell you to “come as you are” but few know how to love you there. As a card-carrying sinner myself, I have witnessed the church’s struggle first-hand.

As I talked to “Anna,” I found myself wanting to apologize for the Church’s inability to love “them” as they are. On one hand, I understand the church’s theological position. Sin, on any level, cannot be condoned by the church. But, on the other hand, we are called to “love our neighbors as ourselves.” (Matthew 7:12). In other words, Christians are supposed to walk the tough balance between loving the sinner while hating their sin. Many churches have the hate part down. The love feels lacking… just ask the sinners.

The truth is, closet adulterers sit in church pews every week. Concealed alcoholics take the wine of communion every Sunday. Embezzlers count the offering. Pornography addicted Pastors hide behind their pulpits as they preach. Overweight, gluttonous Deacons serve their appetites as much as they serve their parishioners. Church folk have become adept at hiding their sin.

Trust me, I know.

And some sins are more acceptable (to the church) than others. The first sin ever committed and the root of all other sins (pride) is alive and well in most churches. From our moral ivory tower we tend to look down on the big visible sinners while we nurse an invisible spiritually proud heart. But is the hidden sin of pride better than the visible sin of stealing? In God’s eyes, it’s all the same – even if the consequences are different.

I remember my reaction when a friend in college, a Christian, one day claimed he was gay. I struggled with the implication. From my perspective, I didn’t think you could be both. Christians, I thought back then, didn’t sin like that. As I have (regrettably) fallen to my own sinful areas, I now understand Christians who sin.

If you commit adultery, you are forever known as an adulterer. If you kill someone, you are known as a murderer. If you steal an item you are known as a thief. Even if you your behaviors are part of your past, you are still identified by your sins – particularly by those affected by your vice. Some people are tempted to steal. Others are tempted by the “greener grass” on the other side of their married fence. My college friend was tempted by other males. Some would say you cannot be a Christian and sin “big” like that. My Bible is filled with stories of saints that sinned BIG and were still claimed and used by God.

  • Abraham was a liar and God used Him to father a nation.
  • Moses was a murderer and God used him to set His people free from slavery.
  • Jacob was a deceiver and God created the twelve tribes of Israel through his lineage.
  • King David was a liar, murderer and adulterer and God called him a “man after His own heart.”

The list goes on and on. In fact, take a look in the New Testament. A quick glance in the Gospels seems to indicate that Christ spent more time with the big sinners of His day than church leadership. The point is, even “saved” sinners struggle with the sins they were saved from. Their sin doesn’t disqualify them from salvation or Christ’s love, it merely points to their need for it.

Gay sin is no better or worse than straight sin. From casual attenders to ordained minister, what gives any heterosexual sinner any right to look down at gays when we are no better than the social lepers of sexual orientation? The only difference between heterosexual sin and homosexual sin is familiarity. Heterosexual sin, for the church, is just a tad easier to swallow since more of its members understand those temptations.

Years ago, I was speaking at a summer camp in upstate New York. While I was teaching, my eyes were making contact with the youth in the room. As I scanned the room, I noticed one boy with a hat was wearing a mask. I began to think, “What is this kid doing? Why is he wearing a mask while I teach? Is this some sort of joke?” I continued to teach and decided to take a closer look as my eyes came back towards his direction. Our eyes connected as I tried to figure out what he was doing. He was doing nothing but listening intently to my words. The mask was not a mask at all. It turns out, he was a severe burn victim and what I thought was a mask was actually his scarred face. My heart broke at his disfigurement. I got to watch him throughout the rest of the week interact with people and see others reaction to him. Most people just stared. Except for a precious few, most did not know how to act around him. As a result, he seemed largely ignored. You could tell he was used to it. People avoided contact because his presence made them uncomfortable. We tend to do the same with those who sin differently or bigger than us, especially in the church.

Today, I have several gay friends who also claim to be Christians. Some still struggle with their sexuality. Others have simply embraced it. Gay or straight, the issue isn’t whether you are tempted to sin. We are ALL tempted in our own ways. The issue is whether you are falling to those temptations. And we ALL fall from time to time. “To err is human,” as the saying goes. It’s the common denominator we ALL share. Men or women, black or white, gay or straight, church leader or gang member, we ALL possess a fallen human nature. That doesn’t give us a license to sin (Romans 6) – it merely explains why we do it. We ALL are one decision away from trouble, whether we work at a church or refuse to walk into one.

I relate to “Anna.” I relate to a messy, complicated life. I have experienced the social shame of a leper. I have felt the pain of rejection from the church. I know what it’s like to feel the icy stares of people who are “better” than me. I know what it’s like to be ignored and avoided… especially by “good Christians.” My social circle has greatly diminished over the last few years. My phone doesn’t ring as much as it used to. Invitations to do anything are few and far between. Living a sinful life has that affect on your relationships. And yet, like my gay friends, we were all created for relationships. As God reminded Adam in the Garden, “it is not good for man(kind) to be alone.” Straight sin or gay sin – it’s all still sin to God. His job is to judge and transform sinners into saints. Our only job is to love one another. What would happen if we left the judging to Him and actually started to love everyone as we should? People like “Anna” might be in church.

It’s no wonder, when you read the Gospels, that you see the public sinners chasing Christ around Galilee. Known prostitutes fell before Him and washed His feet with their repentant tears. Lepers lined up for healing. Tax collectors had Him in their homes for dinner. Women, children, and everyone else who was an outcast were invited “in” by Him. Why? Because He manifested the one characteristic that we most lack today. He lived out what we merely preach. Love. He LOVED them. As they were. In their sin. Messy.

Gay men need love just as much as heterosexual men. Lesbian women need to be accepted as much as straight women. Unmarried, heterosexual sex is just as wrong (in God’s eyes) as homosexual relations. Whether you are a pastor or a predator – both need the transforming love of Christ. And Christ’s transforming agent of choice, like it or not, is the church. After all, who better to love sinful people than other sinful people? Who better to help the alcoholic than the one who has recovered from it? The church was never designed to be a palace for the perfect. The church wasn’t created to be a place where people pretend they aren’t sinning. It is supposed to be THE place where sinners can walk in with their sin and walk out with His grace. It is to be filled with beggars telling all the other beggars where to find Bread.

Christianity is supposed to be a “rubber meets the road” kind of faith. Is that the kind you possess? It’s one thing to read about love in a book. It’s another thing to put on its shoes and walk around.

If a leper approached you, would you touch them? Christ did.

If you caught the woman in adultery (John 4), what would you do with your stone? Christ dropped His.

As Jesus hung on a cross, between two thieves – both were hurling insults at Him (Mark 15:32). During the most painful hour He has ever experienced, He was mocked and jeered by common criminals. They watched Him suffer. They saw the abuse inflicted upon Him by the Romans. To the world, Jesus was merely hanging on a cross. Jesus, however, was still working – changing hearts – and He had one more heart on His schedule.

The thief didn’t confess his many sins. He didn’t make excuses or even say he was sorry. He didn’t promise to change his ways or try to make a deal with God. He was in no position to barter on any level. He merely watched Love absorb hate and that Love changed him. On the cross, Christ didn’t preach a sermon. He didn’t do anything but hang and bleed and yet, somehow, His love for a common thief was so unmistakable that it caused a hardened heart to break.

That is love.

That is what we are called to share.

Especially to those who sin differently than us.

Love more. Judge less. And watch what kind of people God starts bringing to church.

Real sinners.

Just like you.

Just like me.

See you on Sunday.

“Lord, now indeed I find
Thy pow’r, and Thine alone,
Can change the leper’s spots
And melt the heart of stone.”
– Jesus paid it all, hymn