Saturday, December 19, 2020

Hope in the Age of Darkness: Gifts of the Incarnation

James 5:13-17

I tell this story here that I have told before, and I pray you will hear where this leads. A childhood friend, Mark, is the one who led me to a place of being open and inclusive, and as I have tried to live faithfully by the grace of God in its continual unfolding … in the ongoing reflection on where God was at work and still is at work in me.

Mark and I were best friends. We spent a lot of time together from junior high school through our high school graduation. We went our separate ways to college, yet we were just a metropolitan city apart from each other. Even with that, we began to grow apart. Mark, I had heard, was slipping into drug and alcohol use, and I didn’t know how to help him. He had new friends, so I placed the bookmark of our friendship in my memory as something that was meant to be only for a time.

In my third year of college, I had begun to work in the church, first as youth director, and then I was appointed as student local pastor to the Abbott United Methodist Church (whose big claim to fame is as Willie Nelson’s home church). Because the love of my life was still in Ennis, I drove from Abbott to Ennis, which took me through the little community across the lake from Ennis, named Bardwell. This was where Mark had grown up.

One day, Mark called my parent’s house, and upon finding out that I was there, asked me to stop by to see him. He had dropped out of college, and wanted to share something important with me. I agreed to do so. He was living in a rent house his mother and stepfather owned just down the road from where he was raised in Bardwell.

I went in, and we sat down. He began to explain that he had suffered a physical and mental breakdown in college. His drinking and drug use had largely happened because of his inability to deal with his identity.

Mark told me he was gay.

I am pretty sure I glazed over as I tried not to react adversely in the moment. He knew I was shocked, but he explained that he had tried so hard not to be gay, but that denial would eventually lead to his own death.

He knew he had to face the truth or die. You see, Mark had suffered rheumatic fever as a child, and he knew that his heart was damaged. The fact that he had only a physical breakdown and did not die was a small miracle.

He gave me a landscape from a “starving artist” display he bought on 6th Street in Austin, and he had written a note about how dear our friendship was to him on the back of the canvas. It still hangs in my office.

I was lost. I couldn’t think straight. In my mind, this was just wrong. As I became a pastor, it became even more wrong, in my mind. I went home and wrote and eight-page letter about how God judged Mark’s “choice to be gay” as sinful and immoral. I moved into my place of high-minded righteousness … well above my friend and anyone else who challenged my faith in this way. Then something big happened. God deflated me enough just to tear it up and throw it away. I cried as I did so because I no longer knew what I believed.

Fast forward to the mid-90’s. Our family was now living in Arlington. Mark and I had some correspondence and a few phone calls. Our relationship was cordial, but I still wasn’t sure how to think about homosexuality … especially in a church that told me it was clearly wrong and not to get too close to it for fear of tarnishing my ministerial credentials. I had grown a lot, but I still struggled to grow more.

One day, Mark called and said he was in the hospital in Dallas, and wondered if I could come by. When I went to see him, he had lost a great deal of weight and looked pale and weak. He told me that his heart was finally playing out, and he was making every effort to to get on the list for a heart transplant. He was alcohol and drug free, and as a gay man, he had to verify that he was negative for HIV/AIDS (which he was). The hospital, however, was owned by a conservative Christian denomination (some will know which hospital this is), and they resisted putting him on the list. The reasons they gave were trivial and made no sense.

Mark was clear that a gay man could not make it onto this hospital’s heart transplant list, and it was too late to turn elsewhere. He wanted to talk to me about his funeral service and what it would look like. He had written something he wanted me to read. We talked more. Then I took his letter and left in tears.

Mark was back in the hospital within a month, and his mother called to tell me that he wasn’t going to make it. Could I please come to the hospital. I arrived to find Mark just barely conscious, and there was his mother who was in tears. Also there were his two brothers who hated the fact that he was gay and therefore loathed him.

I stayed for a long while, but it appeared that death would not come soon. I drove from Dallas back to Arlington, and no sooner had I arrived at home, I received a call from his mother that he was actively dying and taking a breath only every so often. I immediately got back in the car and drove back to Dallas.

When I got off the elevator, I was headed to Mark’s room when I heard my name called from the large waiting room. It was empty except for four men who were friends of Mark’s. I had met them earlier in the day. As I walked in, they told me that Mark had died shortly after his mom had called me. His brothers did not want her staying around, and they left with her after they made sure the hospital knew who to call about the body. Mark’s body was still in the room, and his friends didn’t want me to walk in and find him that way.

They had stayed just for me.

I felt my legs begin to give way. I was heaving and melting into a puddle of tears, and these four men moved into a circle around me. They pulled me up in the middle of them and created a giant group hug of grown men completely in tears.

Through my tears I looked up and realized that there were only five of us in the room, and I was the only one who was not gay.

They, however, were my church. They were the ones who sustained me. They became, in that moment, my confessors and my pastors as they cared for my grieving soul.

They were the Body of Christ … the embodiment of God’s grace. It was true that God was there, and I had arrived at a place where I saw, not sin, but the incredible love of God made real.

It was a gift for me.

That, you see, is where I took the greatest step into full inclusion. God was preparing me, I believe, to be the pastor who saw Christ in the face of all whom I met. There was no one outside the bounds of God’s sustaining grace. God moved in such a way that I would ultimately become pastor of Wellspring, which was practicing its own radical inclusiveness and became a Reconciling Congregation.

We are that place where “All Are Welcome, All Are Accepted!” AND ALL MEANS ALL!

Friends, the light shines in the darkest moments. It transformed and is transforming me. It can transform you, as well.

So #HowBoutIt Church? How will we be the Body of Christ … the light of Christ … in a season of darkness for others who join us on this journey of redemption.

Lord God, you show up in the most surprising ways. As we prepare for the birth of a savior that oddly happens amidst the stark poverty in a stall meant only for animals, may we see your light rising in the darkness of our lives and our world. May we be those who share the light of Christ in radical ways. Amen.

12 thoughts on “Saturday, December 19, 2020

  1. I cannot believe we never heard this story. So powerful. Maybe being a psychologist effected my way of thinking but have always known people don’t choose to be gay or trans or whatever. God made us all and what right have we to judge. As a matter of fact how dare we judge God’s creation.
    Thanks for sharing this amazing story. Wellspring is so very fortunate to have you. Have loved the daily devotionals. Watch your Sunday service often. Love to you and your family.

    1. Kay, I actually remember telling this story in Woodway and saying that this is the reason I don’t tolerate exclusion of LGBT+ people from the life of the church. (It may have been a Sunday when you were working to meet visitors.) Your insight is spot on. It isn’t a choice and it didn’t take me long in my journey with Mark to see the world in a different way.

  2. Such a moving and sad, but ultimately illuminating, recollection. I’ve heard you talk about Mark many times but this is beautifully written and worth reading. Thank you for putting those emotions out there

  3. Greg read your blog, this morning, and immediately set it up for me – I had to come read it, myself. BEAUTIFUL!! GOD has an amazing way of humbling us at the perfect moment. Mark was redeemed by the same Jesus who died for me – all-inclusive was his sacrifice!! Thank you for your honesty and willingness to be transformed. Being refined can be confusing and painful and overwhelming – but incredibly necessary! Thank you for sharing your story! Merry Christmas to you and Leah!!

  4. Jeff
    I so remember those days of him struggling and most of all those last days. God bless you and yours.

    Craig Fincher

  5. One day I would like to tell you how I decided leaving anybody out of gods church is immoral and just ain’t right.

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