Strong at the Broken Places

The hand of the LORD came upon me, and he brought me out by the spirit of the LORD, and set me down in the middle of a valley; it was full of bones. He led me all around them; and they were very dry. He said to me, “Mortal, can these bones live?”
(Ezekiel 37:1-3)

We are living in hard times. It seems the very atmosphere in which we live has been poisoned. We breathe air polluted by selfishness and fear, as politicians and pundits pit us against one another in competition for rights we are told are scarce. We feel we must fight for our survival.

These days, we are having a tough time being compassionate. Concern for others is a luxury we are told we can no longer afford. Though if we study our history, we quickly learn that the same people warning us what fools we are to love the marginalized, to work for the liberation of those held captive, have always said the same thing.

During the Great Depression, they chided us for sharing what we had. There wasn’t enough, they told us, and we were squandering what little we had on slackers and ingrates. Those who were down-and-out, those who were persecuted and oppressed, were judged to deserve it. It was easier to forget them that way.

The bones God showed the prophet Ezekiel were unclean – those of a people held in such contempt they’d been slaughtered and left to rot in the desert. Broken and trampled by wild beasts, the names of their owners long forgotten. But God breathed “His” Spirit upon those bones, and as Ezekiel prophesied hope to them, they knit back together. New flesh grew over them, and they came back to life. What other human beings may despoil, abandon and forget, God never gives up on.

Those who hope for progress in any society, those who actively work for it, sometimes risking their lives to bring it about, are almost never the comfortable, prosperous or privileged. They are those who have themselves felt the sting of the lash, wiped the spittle from their faces and endured exile in the desert. They have been abandoned. Their belongings have been looted, and they’ve been given up for dead. This was true not only in Ezekiel’s time, but even today. Both of the pastors at my church are openly gay. Everyone who joins our fast-growing congregation is warmed by their welcome. Steve and Jeffrey have known rejection, and are determined that all who have suffered as they have will find a home inside their doors.

Jeffrey recently preached about his experiences as chaplain for an organization for LGBT youth here in the Phoenix area. A young man, probably not more than fifteen or sixteen, cast out (like so many gay youth) from his family home, shared with Jeffrey that he has been diagnosed with a heart problem. It could be serious, and surgery is required. He called his mother, desperate to hear her tell him, one more time, that she loves him. She hung up on him, telling him never to call her again.

Jeffrey is determined that this boy will know someone loves him – that God loves him. A straight pastor, even one who would not condemn this boy, would likely feel sorry about the situation, then forget it ten minutes later. It would make him or her feel bad, and nobody wants a bummer. But Jeffrey can’t forget it. Though the organization requires anonymity for the protection of the young people who avail themselves of its help, Jeffrey will do his utmost to keep track of him and see him through.

He told us that very shortly, some of these kids may show up at our worship services. “I want you to be more than their brothers and sisters,” he said. “I want you to be their parents.” They may have no other home. But God will provide a home for every wanderer – and we are the ones called to make that happen.

“But we have this treasure in clay jars, so that it may be made clear that this extraordinary power belongs to God and does not come from us. We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair; persecuted, but now forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed; always carrying in the body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be made visible in our bodies.”
(2 Corinthians 4:7-8)

We are, as the saying goes, stronger at the places that have been broken. That’s precisely because God knows that human compassion is so often fully awakened only in those who have suffered themselves. Because we have endured so much injustice, LGBT Christians seem uniquely able to extend compassion to others who have suffered. Certainly this has been proven true with regard to our work with other sexual minorities, but it has also been manifestly true that we tend to help those marginalized in other ways. We are on the front lines of many battles for justice and liberation.

In this sense, we are pivotal – perhaps even prophetic. God is using us – as unlikely as it may seem to some – to accomplish what Jesus made clear all of His followers were to do. For centuries, the church has tried to shame us. As it turns out, we are putting the church to shame.

All who claim the name of Christian are to follow in Jesus’ footsteps. They are to do as He has done. And He was here for everybody, without exception. Not merely for the rich, the powerful, the privileged or those in the majority. No one had to be the same sort of person He was, or to have a background or circumstances limited to His own, personal experience.

Jesus loved and accepted everyone, lived for everyone, died for everyone. That was, in fact, precisely why he was criticized by the “good religious people” of His time. He came to abolish the concept that we need only care about those most like us, or that we had to be able to “relate to” those we deemed worthy of our compassion or our help. LGBT folks are doing what all Christ’s followers are supposed to be doing – and, to an admirable degree, doing so whether they are Christians or not.

I see them at the homeless shelters, working at hospitals (a disproportional number of health care workers are LGBT), at battered women’s clinics and joining the battle for justice not only for themselves, but for many others. Many of them – perhaps even most – go to no church. They’ve been kicked out and told not to return, and all too many have complied. But they have suffered, and they want the suffering to end. For everybody.

My friend Curtiss is being foreclosed out of his home. He has already lost his truck, and needs to borrow a car just to get to the store. He’s been unemployed for a year and a half. He managed, amid this turmoil, to get his nurse’s training and certification, and has joined with others in opening an assisted-living facility for elderly LGBT’s. Building it, literally, from the ground up, and getting right in there to lay the plumbing and raise the walls.

Could he have chosen a more lucrative path? Nurses are certainly in high demand now. But Curtiss wants to be where he can do the most good for others. Senior citizens who are sexual minorities face probably more discrimination than anyone else. He is determined to make a crucial difference in the lives of those most often overlooked.

Would we do these things if we weren’t gay? I’d like to say so, and in some cases we surely would. But it seems part of the human condition that we respond more readily to the needs of others when we have felt the gnaw of hunger, and the pain of rejection, ourselves. Everyone is like that, for the most part. But it was to this “everyone” that Jesus said, “Follow me.”

I don’t think He was talking about believing in any particular creed. It is inconceivable, to me, that God would have made so many billions of people, expecting them all to believe precisely the same thing. Most of those who ever lived, or ever will live, on this planet never heard the gospel “preached” – and no matter how many television towers Pat Robertson may build, this fact will remain. If being gay helps us to understand the silliness of so much of what passes for Christianity these days, perhaps that’s a good thing, too. Far from driving us away from God, it can be the very thing that draws us closer.

Those of us who have not given up on church – even when the church has given up on us – know something many other Christians don’t. We know Christ, perhaps, in a way they never will. As I spend time with Curtiss, watching his setbacks and small but steady triumphs, I see, in him, a persistent, undying hope. He is someone whose soul has been pronounced dead by many, yet he goes on believing that God loves him, that God has not given up on him and that God will never give up on him. This is a perseverance borne of resurrection already experienced.

In a very real sense, all LGBT believers have been resurrected already. We have been brutally taunted, mocked, spat upon, flogged and crucified. We have been laid in the tomb, and the stone has been rolled over the door to block out the light of the sun. We have lain there, in our grave clothes, counting the hours in the dark and hoping – still praying – that God has not abandoned us. And we have seen the Angel, come to roll the stone away.

Jesus wept at Lazarus’ tomb, I believe, not so much because He was sad His friend was dead – since He knew He would revive him – but because everyone else had already abandoned him. “Yes he will rise again, Lord,” Martha told him, “in the resurrection of the dead.” But of course she meant that this would happen at the end of time and not one minute before. She, too, had given up on her brother’s ever seeing the light of another day on this earth.

Jesus knew better. He knew God had not closed the book on Lazarus, just as God would not close the book on Him. He knew his friend lay in the damp, dark tomb, counting the hours and hoping God remembered him. And He anticipated a time, not long thereafter, when He Himself would lie there, counting those hours.

Jesus had the truest form of love one child of God may have for another. He had empathy. He had compassion. He was going into that tomb not only for us, but with us. And He would arise with us, too.

No wonder those who think God hates certain people – people who love “the wrong way” – have such a harsh and gloomy view of life. They imagine that the sun of God’s love spends half its time behind dark clouds. Their entire lives are dark and fearful, and they can imagine no ending to it except the relief of the grave. They anticipate lying in the dark, counting the hours, afraid even to pray because your capricious and selective God may listen – and, then again, may not. No wonder such people have so little empathy for others.

Jesus praised the widow who put her last coin into the Temple treasury. She gave out of her poverty, but He knew that the force behind real giving is love. She could have held onto that coin, fearfully hoarding it, and it would have been gone before she knew it. God transforms the gifts given by those who suffer, those who hurt, into lasting good for others under hardship.

It isn’t simply their money, or their labor, or their time, God uses to transform the world for justice, but the love – the very dedication to a world resurrected in love – with which they give it. We are never too poor, too marginalized, too insignificant or even too unclean to make a difference.

The “all” we LGBT’s have to give is our very hope for life eternal – our faith that our lives will mean anything lasting at all. This is nothing less than the same “all” given by Jesus, who blazed our trail into eternity. Is that really such a widow’s mite? The life of one Galilean peasant may not have seemed like much to some of those who stood at the foot of His cross and jeered, but that “mite” had endless significance to God. No wonder He could observe the widow putting her tiny coin in that slot and see what God saw.

She gave all she had. And in return, she got all the riches God can give.