Years ago I was the pastor of a small rural church. We had two adult Sunday School classes that we referred to as the Older Adult Class and the Younger Adult Class. When I use the term “older” it is not really a reference to senior adults. I think the age break between the classes was probably close to fifty years old. It was just an arbitrary number that allowed us to divide everyone into two equally-sized groups.
One week I noticed the Bible study lesson was on the subject of divorce. Thinking I knew my congregation pretty well, I quickly surmised the two classes would have different positions on the issue. The older adults would hang onto their traditions and assert that divorce is wrong and of course the younger adults would be more adventurous and allow that divorce happens and so we must learn to live with it.
Talking to a few of the folks after the lesson, I was surprised that I had been completely wrong. The older adults were very open-minded and the younger adults took a very hard stance against divorce. After thinking about it for a few minutes it was obvious why I was wrong. The ones in the older class were parents and grandparents who had watched their children get divorced and the younger ones had no such experience. Experience is an extremely valuable teacher (hopefully).
In my own life I have learned that the older I get, the less I know. Things I used to be pretty confident about, even adamant at times, I am no longer quite so sure. As a student at a Baptist college and then a Baptist seminary and then pastor of a Baptist church, I was quite confident that Baptists were correct about almost everything (a few minor exceptions). Then I began to meet people from other backgrounds and traditions and discovered there might be other ways of doing and believing.
I am not the only person who has had to back away from confident beliefs. Just last week, Ohio Senator Rob Portman made a similar revelation. He had been a staunch advocate against gay marriage, even voting for legislation making it illegal. However, he announced that he has changed his mind. The reason is very simple, his experience has changed. His son is gay and the Senator loves his son and wants him to have the best life possible.
I realize that a lot of people live in a very black and white world, where all the lines between right and wrong are clearly drawn. It’s a comfortable place. I know because I have lived there myself. It’s nice to know who is and who is not going to heaven; to be able to identify the ones living in sin; to know the lifestyle I have chosen is the one that will be blessed; and to have a handy reference guide to all the moral questions of life.
My position on divorce at the time of the Sunday School lessons I referenced earlier was that “God hates divorce.” After all, that is what it says in the Bible—Malachi 2:16. I was of the opinion that if you are in a bad marriage, just suck it up and make it work since a bad marriage is better than divorce. After all, the Bible never says that God hates bad marriages.
But then I began to experience more of life. I had a friend who wanted to be a pastor and serve the church. However, as a young man, he hastily married a young woman, quickly realized his mistake, and had the marriage annulled. They did not even have sex. Yet, this failed marriage was frequently hurled in his face as he searched for a church to serve. It just didn’t seem right.
I came across many others who had been divorced, some recently and others years ago, and they were happy, content, and building a strong family. My black and white world was getting grayer.
Then my son found himself in a bad marriage and he tried harder than anyone I know to make it work. He certainly tried harder than I would have. In fact, I told him it was time to give up and move on but he said he couldn’t yet. I suspect his tenacity was partly because of what I had taught him about marriage and divorce. Not only was my black and white world changing but now I was feeling guilt for imposing it on others.
As our family worked and hurt and cried our way through that experience, I discovered why God hates divorce. He knows how painful it is! I still hate divorce but now for different reasons. I don’t hate it because it should be avoided at all costs but because when it can’t be avoided it is a painful remedy. It is not an enjoyable experience. Everyone involved suffers. It is something to despise.
I can understand why a Senator would change his position on an issue that is causing pain and suffering to his family and especially his son. He is looking at the issue from a different vantage point. That is why I am suggesting that as we mature, our vantage point changes (more insight and clearer understanding) and we arrive at different conclusions.
In my case, I have already lived longer than I ever thought I would. I had polio as an infant and spent my entire life in a wheelchair, so even as a kid my goal was to see the year 2000. It seemed like a long time, fifty years, especially for those of us in a world where age sixty was considered old. Now that I have exceeded that goal (and I’m still trudging along quite nicely), I have put together a list of things I am still sure about.
Jesus is not as easy to understand as I always thought.
I have always been a big fan of Jesus. The Gospel of Mark is my favorite because it is direct and to the point, no wasting time and words. Just tell me what you think. I love it when Jesus says something pithy that seems so clear. Yet, the more I studied the scripture, the more I realized Jesus’ words are not easy to understand or simple to do. The more I read His words the more I sense His amazing compassion for the poor and outcast. I realized I was reading them as a way to make my life better rather than a call for me to make the lives of others better.
It dawned on me one day that the word “success” had become a central part of my vocabulary. I wanted to be successful and thought it was my job to help others be successful. If I will just manage my money a certain way or discipline my children correctly or relate to my wife like I’m supposed to then everything will be great. We will all be successful. Thank you, Jesus, for dying to make me successful!
I was too much like the disciples in the boat on the stormy sea when Jesus was asleep. I thought if I just wake Him up and let Him know that I have a problem, everything will be fine. After all, this Christian life is all about how well I am doing (of course, He will do the same for you). But then Jesus called me out for my lack of faith. “Relax; it’s not about avoiding a shipwreck. The important thing is to get to the other side because there we will find a man drowning in demons.”
The easy way to understand Jesus is to believe it is all about me and my faithfulness. The truth is that it is all about others and how I love them. I feel stupid for missing it for so long. While I have been busy hoping my neighbor notices my faithfulness to God and wholesome lifestyle so that someday he might want to go to church with me, Jesus might be more interested in someone I meet who is drowning in demons but I was deaf to his cry.
“Jesus, don’t you care that the morality of our nation is crumbling and we are surrounded by homosexuals?” and He replies, “How is it that you have no faith?” Just like He saw the Gerasene demonic stumbling through the tombs, he sees those we easily condemn as sinners or mentally off and recognizes people who are hurting from rejection and judgment.
The little church we now attend observes communion every Sunday. A few weeks ago, someone saw one of our members walking through the building with a filled wine glass and raised concerns that we might be drinking alcohol. When I heard it I laughed. Several in our little group are in recovery from drugs and alcohol so it would be foolish for us to use actual wine. Yet, I completely understand his concerns. I have always been a teetotaler myself and not that long ago I would have arrived at the same conclusion. “That is certainly the way Jesus thinks” would have been my reasoning.
The truth is, I think Jesus would be more excited that a group of believers was sharing communion than whether the juice was fermented or not. I used to take the easy path and believed Jesus was more interested in my sobriety than in others who had already failed at sobriety. I am still hanging onto the belief that sex between people of the same gender is a sin. However, now I am also very sure that judging and condemning others is definitely a sin.
There are very few black and white issues.
The second realization I have made with the passing of time is that, not only is Jesus more difficult to understand, but also the correct position on most issues is not as clear as I previously believed. As I look back now at the matters I was pretty adamant about at one time or another, I realize I was actually more like the Pharisees than Jesus.
I could out argue any Church of Christ on why we should use a piano in worship. It was easy to embarrass a Seventh Day Adventist on the stupidity of worshipping on Saturday. Showing a Methodist that sprinkling instead of immersing did not make sense was easy. Explaining why infants should not be baptized was so obvious I didn’t even need to talk about it. I was also well-versed in why you should not drink, dance, smoke, get tattooed, have sex before marriage, gamble, and avoid anyone who did.
I was also aware of the necessity of daily Bible reading, tithing, belonging to a prayer group, attending Wednesday evening church, witnessing to my neighbor, avoiding most movies and television programs, wearing modest clothing, and not working on Sunday. That is why we never ate out for Sunday lunch—it meant we were forcing other people to work on the Lord’s Day.
My world was very colorless, primarily black and white. But, once again, the more I knew about Jesus, I realized that He not only resided in a very colorful place but perhaps it is even more accurate to say it was high def. He partied with tax collectors and sinners, drank wine at weddings, (I know, I used to be able to show how He only drank unfermented juice), travelled and ate out on the Sabbath, and rubbed shoulders with the unclean. He seemed to be quite comfortable with the unwashed and disgusted with the religious—the exact opposite of what I believed to be right.
One of the fun shows on television is Duck Dynasty. It is about a family of “rednecks” (what they call themselves) who are very funny and unashamed of their faith in Jesus. Surprisingly, they are able to insert a positive word about Christ into most episodes. You would expect the typical media snubbing of anything that might possibly be Christian but I have not seen that so far. Instead, what is beginning to happen is the Robertson family of Duck Dynasty is probably going to be taken down by Christians.
Yes, it seems they are active in the Church of Christ. You know, the ones who believe baptism is necessary for salvation. I have already read several blog articles taking them to task for this “heresy” being brought into the faith and warning the rest of us to be careful and not allow them to sneak into the side door of our living rooms.
That kind of snobbish criticism doesn’t interest me. I would much rather listen to Uncle Si regale us with stories of his exploits in Vietnam and then be invited to join the family prayer before the meal at the end of each episode. I am often embarrassed by my Christian brothers and sisters.
God has never asked me to join the “morality police.”
Even if I still saw everything as black or white, the simple fact that God has never called me to be a member of the morality police is significant. In other words, if I believe something is right or wrong for me, it is not my responsibility to help you come to the same conclusion.
This is a big one since this is where we often go astray. Let me provide an example. I am confident that consuming alcohol is wrong for me. Not wrong in the sense that if I drink it will send me straight to hell, but just not what I should do. Perhaps it is a remnant of my past, the way I was raised, or something else, but I don’t think it is okay for me. However, that does not mean I should hold you to that same standard. You are responsible for your own decision. If you choose to get drunk and act like an idiot, then I will probably avoid you until you sober up, but I have not been asked by God to condemn you.
When I indicated that my world is no longer black and white, some of you probably wrote me off as a heretic. Changing my beliefs has had very little affect on my behavior, however. I don’t drink, smoke, encourage extra-marital sex, etc. etc. (I get tired just thinking about how long this list might be). I realize I am not responsible for your morality. I am my brother’s keeper when it comes to food, clothing, and loving, but not when it comes to moral choices.
If you feel like you must choose between hating the sin or loving the sinner, always choose the later.
Christians like to use the phrase, “Hate the sin but love the sinner” and then refer to Jesus and the woman caught in adultery. What I have observed is that we use the phrase to justify our hatred, trying to mask the fact that we really don’t love sinners but it is okay since we are just hating the sin even more.
This is especially true when it comes to homosexuality. Many claim they are opposed to gay rights because they just hate the sin. Yet, they mock gay people at every opportunity, openly oppose anything that might benefit gay people, blame gay people for every problem from child molesting to climbing divorce rates, believe that gay people getting married will somehow destroy their own family, and sometimes even stand on street corners and shout obscenities at them. “It’s okay,” they say, “I really love these people, it’s their sin I hate!”
I have learned it is really difficult to separate the sinner from the sin. Jesus was able to do it with the woman caught in adultery but it is not so easy for me, and probably you as well. Senator Portman is learning the difficulty. Obviously, he was of the opinion that homosexuality is a sin and made it clear during years of public office. However, once he chose to continue loving his son who is gay, he realized that his political position might not be communicating love.
It is the same lesson I learned about divorce. I have not changed my belief that divorce is wrong, but I have changed the way I approach the subject and deal with people. There are many people who are divorced because it was the lesser of two evils—a reality we will continually face as long as we live in a fallen world. Others were divorced because they married foolishly or because they themselves were the foolish partner. The one thing I now know, which I didn’t know before, is that divorce is painful and should be avoided if at all possible.
You will not hear me preach a sermon on the sin of divorce but I will speak of the pain of divorce. I will speak of how I believe it hurts God when we hurt. I will talk about the necessity of loving those who have been hurt and the ones who are doing the hurting.
Since it is challenging to hate the sin and love the sinner, we are often forced to choose one or the other. I have decided that when I must make this choice, the best option is to love the sinner. This might put us in an uncomfortable position as our friends wait for us to speak out about sin. They will probably conclude that we have gone soft on sin. They might even think you have turned your back on the faith.
Remember a few months back when we had the big flap with Chick-fil-a and gay rights. I had many Christian friends who proudly and publically ate chicken sandwiches that day, firmly believing they were doing their part to preserve family and take a stand for Christ. Then they made sure to post on Facebook or Twitter that they were taking a stand. But step back and think about it for a moment. It just seemed to me it was more a slap in the face to gay people than a real benefit to family values. I wonder if Senator Portman ate a chicken sandwich that day?
There are many opportunities to show support for your family. Here’s a novel idea—buy a sack of chicken sandwiches on your way home tonight and have the whole family sit down and eat together, without the television. We can show our support for family without offending others. We can even eat chicken sandwiches with our gay friends.
You really don’t know what you believe about a social issue until you or someone you love faces it personally.
The final lesson I would like to mention is essentially a conglomeration of the previous comments. The only way you can ever be sure of what you believe is to walk through the experience with a loved one. I am not suggesting that your morality should be based on what works or makes everyone feel good. Neither am I suggesting there are no moral absolutes. There are absolutely moral absolutes. The problem is that I am not always completely sure what they are, even after reading the Bible. The only way to fully understand all the ramifications of a position is to have a stake in the outcome.
I am confident that my current moral positions are just as solid as they were years ago. I am just not as sure about so many of them. In fact, the positions I now hold are actually more solid because they are based on years of experience, wrestling with the Word of God and the people involved.
It was easy for me to say divorce is a sin until I had close up experience. It was much easier to be judgmental toward homosexuals until I learned to love my wife’s uncle and his friend (today they are called “life partners”). It was easy for me to be condescending toward people of other faiths until some of them became my friends.
Many years ago I was working as a police dispatcher. One of the perks of being single was that I had an abundance of free time. Frequently, when I got off work late at night, I would ride in a police car with an officer through the overnight shift. It was an educational experience for this Baptist boy who had been raised in a preacher’s home.
I remember the first time we stopped a drunk driver. We hauled him to the police station, completed all the paper work and loaded him for a trip to jail. During the hour or so we spent with this drunk, I listened to him and even laughed at him a few times. Once we arrived at the jail, the paperwork was completed and we returned to the patrol car. As we started the trek back home, I was embarrassed as a tear rolled down my cheek. In a sense, I was grieving for this stranger who deserved to be put in jail. But you see, after an hour or so with him, he was no longer a stranger. It was sad that we had to leave him behind alone to pay for his sins.
At that moment, he was no longer a drunk who was a blight on society. He was a man who was hurting and suffering the consequences of his condition. I had a sense of what Jesus must feel when he sees a sinner. At least I hope He does since I am a highly accomplished sinner myself.