“It’s funny, isn’t it? That you can preach a judgmental and vengeful and angry God and nobody will mind. But you start preaching a God that is too accepting, too loving, too forgiving, too merciful, too kind…and you are in trouble.” -Bishop Gene Robinson (Episcopal Diocese of New Hampshire)
Ryan wasn’t out when we were in Bible college together. I’m sure people had their suspicions, but he never told anyone he was gay until years after he was expelled. While they officially dismissed him for smoking, I’ve always wondered if it had more to do with their suspicions about his sexuality. So did Ryan.
That experience turned Ryan’s world upside-down. If our little Bible college didn’t want him, how could God possibly love him? My friend’s dream of working for a church was crushed. Over time, he internalized the rejection, until he believed he was intrinsically bad. I watched his life spiral out of control as he desperately tried to numb himself.
We have remained friends through the years, and I’ve been privileged to hear more of his story. Once, I asked Ryan why his life got so rough after Bible college. He said something I won’t ever forget: “When you believe you are bad, you don’t act good.”
Ryan was desperate to accept himself as a gay man, to believe that God could love him for who he is. He wanted to know there was room for him at God’s table, too, but toxic theology and leaders who voted him out told him otherwise.
Of course, Ryan’s not the only one. I’ve had similar, heartbreaking conversations with several dear friends. Through their tears, each confessed that trying to “act straight” was like living in a prison of secrecy and fear. To this day, many are scared to death of being disowned by their families and shunned by their churches.
The fears aren’t unfounded. We’ve all heard horror stories about someone coming out and experiencing rejection, being shunned, and sometimes enduring outright violence, simply for being real about who they are.
Today’s news drives that point home. When the largest mainline Protestant denomination in the United States puts the worthiness of an entire group of people up for a vote, is it any wonder people struggle to believe they bear the image of the Divine?
If people believe the lie that their lives don’t matter, it damages the soul and sometimes kills the body. People don’t want to live in a world (read: a family or a church) where they aren’t known, accepted, and loved. Perpetuating hate and fear through destructive theology or political ideology is damaging the collective soul of this worldwide community of humans.
Please hear me: whoever you are, whatever you’ve done: you are not bad.If you’ve received that message, know it’s a nasty, hideous lie. Your dreams, your experiences — your joys and pains and sorrows and traumas and successes — are as unique as the stars in the sky, as varied as the number of hairs on your head. God and healthy communities have great big hearts and wide open arms. There’s plenty of room for everyone to fit.
Anyone that makes you feel devalued or ashamed because of your lived experience is not coming from a place of love. When you finally recognize that you are of intrinsic value just because you are a human being, you won’t allow anyone to diminish your worth any longer.
This “be like us or you’re not welcome here” tribalism is why I left the Evangelical church. In the circles where I used to spend so much time, people were conditioned by years to believe that they are intrinsically evil. At the core of their being, people think they were born damaged, and horrible things like, “God loves me, but must not like me.”
But that’s not what real love says. My favorite thing about Jesus is that he promised that the underdog would have a front-row seat in His radical new kingdom, that the last would be first. The message of Jesus was a big “hell no” to the way things had always been and the lies we’ve always believed.
When religious people stop expecting people to fit their mold, agree with their politics, or live up to their social expectations, they extend freedom and joy to all of God’s people. And isn’t belonging what we all want? Isn’t that what Christ offers us?
At the end of the day, isn’t it more important to love my neighbors than to expect them to pass a litmus test on morality or religious fervor?
If you’ve felt ostracized due to your race, religion, sexuality, gender, disease, or disability, hear me again: you are not bad. If you are a part of any setting (religious or otherwise), that is more obsessed with perfection, cleanliness, and cultural norms than making everyone feel welcome, it is toxic. If real people don’t feel safe enough to enter a sanitized sanctuary, place of business, or home, it’s missing the point.
All any of us wants is love. Rest. Friendship. Compassion. Most of all: acceptance. We aren’t necessarily looking for answers. Just a place to take off our shoes, bow our heads, and rest, as we breathe in peace that no one can take away. The most rebellious thing a follower of Jesus can offer another human being is Love.
Countless people are hiding in church pews and at dinner tables with their own families, fearful of being ousted, just like my friend Ryan. Church leaders only reinforce those fears with their statements and votes.
It’s time to loosen the death grip on our precious moral stances and open our hands and hearts to everyone around us longing for love and acceptance. We can’t depend on the church or the government to care for people exactly as they are. Grace is beckoning each of us to step out, speak up, and make room for everyone.
While conservative Christians use the Bible to justify their discrimination and bigotry, I see a command to love everyone. In today’s context, I think Matthew 25:35–36 would read something like this:
I was LGBTQ+, and you invited me to the Table.
I was homeless, and you gave me a room.
I was an immigrant, and you welcomed me.
I had HIV, and you visited me.
I was a divorcee, and you didn’t exclude me from fellowship.
I was a woman, and you told me my voice mattered.
I was black, and you listened to me.
I was depressed, and you held me close.
I wish we could find grace to be unique, to embrace the story of all of us. My prayer these days is Lord, bind us together. We need the weirdness, the history, the art, the passion, the music, the queerness, and the glitter.
Please don’t back down in your resistance to the lies. You can love and be loved in return, exactly as you are. You might have to try a few places and communities, but there is a place for you. Come. Let’s celebrate the ways we are alike, and glory in our differences. Let’s listen to the sounds of friendship, harmony, and grace. Grace has made space at the table for all of us. Love will never vote you out (even if the Methodist church does).
*This article includes excerpts from Catching Your Breath, and has been edited for relevance.
Steve Austin is an author, speaker, and life coach who is passionate about helping overwhelmed people learn to catch their breath. He is the author of two Amazon bestsellers, "Catching Your Breath," and "From Pastor to a Psych Ward." Steve lives with his wife and two children in Birmingham, Alabama.
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