Let me tell you what Hell is.

The text read:  “Im going to burn in hell ne way.”

*beep beep*

“Life is pain.  Why live?  Pain forever, then hell.  I want it over with.”

I got his address off of Facebook, we’d become friends only days before when he’d been given a copy of my novel.  I wasn’t sure what had inspired him to reach out to me.  All I knew was that I’d stayed home from church that day because I was sick, and here he was.  Reaching out.  Not wanting to die alone.

“Don’t be an idiot”, I texted him back.  “There is love.  There is hope.   If you go to hell I’m going with you.”

Painful seconds passed.

“I’m almost to your house,” I wrote.  “Calling you.”

I will never, ever, forget the pain in his voice when he answered his phone.  When we’d met a few days before, he had been the kindest, gentlest, most soft spoken person I’d ever known.  He had been so quick to laugh, and although he obviously was living with a great deal of pain his spirit shone through.  The voice I heard through the phone was almost robotic in it’s monotone and so desperately lacking in spirit.  “Just stay alive another minute,” I told him.  “I’m turning, where are you?”

He came out on the front porch and agreed to go with me.  I took him to a mental health clinic that was fortunately only a few blocks away.  Even so, it was one of the longest car rides of my life.

“God doesn’t hate you,” I said.  “God loves you.”

“You know what they say?”  He replied, “I would’ve never been gay unless God totally rejected me.”

“For F—‘s sake, you said you’ve known you were gay since you were six!  What did a six year old do to get wholly rejected by God?”

“It doesn’t matter, does it?”  He wiped away tears but it was like wiping at the Columbia, it just kept rushing out.  “I mean, I can’t not be gay and no one cares, I mean, they don’t care no matter what.  It’s like, ‘well sure you’re depressed, it’s what comes from sin.’ And like, ‘the wages of sin is death’ so like if I kill myself, that’s justice.  That’s justice.”

“And here I took you for someone pretty smart,” I responded.  “You know homosexual acts are listed right with gossip and idle talk and drunkenness.  If your suicide is justice half that freaking church needs to put a blade to their wrist.”

“I can’t believe you just said that.”

“Well I’m kind of pissed that you almost died on my watch.  I could say more.”

He just stared at me.

“God is love, right?  You remember my favorite passage.  It’s all over the book.  The people that won’t help you because you are gay can’t be speaking for God because it’s not loving to turn away from someone’s pain.  Whatever they said it doesn’t matter.”

“You didn’t hear them, Ell.  All of the verses, and it’s like, ‘hey, it’s in the Bible.  We’re just being obedient.'”

“Shut the eff up, man, or I’ll pull over and slap you.”

“Ell!”

“I don’t want to hear that crap in my car even if you are quoting someone else.  Forget it.”

“I don’t understand, I mean, I thought you were a Christian.”

“Of course I’m a Christian, that’s why I can recognize bull when I hear it.  The fruit of the spirit is goodness and patience and love and whatever the other ones are.”

“Ha!”

“I’m a little distracted by how pissed I am and can’t do the brain thing, forgive me.”

“What were you saying?”

“Love.  That’s the fruit of the spirit.  If the fruit of their obedience is your death, it’s not my God they are obeying.”

“Oh,” he said.

“And honestly I’m feeling more Christlike right now than I have in years.”

* * *

A few weeks later we would be emailing back and forth, and I would say this.  “What you said about Hell.  I can show you hell.  It’s a kid going to a church because he’s on the brink and he needs someone to love him, and they show him the door.  I don’t know where Jesus is right now, but he is weeping.  And he still loves you.  Don’t give up.”

Here’s the thing:  I don’t care what your personal conviction is about homosexuality.  What I care about is my friend, and other people like him.  Sadly, he’s not the only kid I’ve ever heard tell that story and I doubt he’ll be the last, even though I fervently pray it’s not the case.  I’ve talked enough blades off of wrists for my lifetime.

Here’s the thing:  gay people aren’t the enemy.  Homosexuality is never singled out in the Bible.  It always appears hand in hand with other sins:  hubris, for example.  Drunkenness and gluttony.  Idolatry.  Idle talk and gossip.  What infuriates me more than anything else in the whole debate about sexuality is that you see people saying “we can’t let gays get married because it goes against the Bible” but the same people aren’t trying to pass laws to outlaw idle chatter, gluttony, or even premarital sex.  How is it okay for Christian organizations to be pursuing keeping sodomy laws on the books while their employees chat about who Julie is dating on their breaks?

I’m sorry, guys, that may strike you as an extreme example but I am being completely serious.

The Bible doesn’t make a distinction between the sins it lists.  Being gay is no worse than being a gossip, and both things are equally condemned in the church.

But now I am writing to you that you must not associate with anyone who claims to be a brother or sister but is sexually immoral or greedy, an idolater or slanderer, a drunkard or swindler. Do not even eat with such people.  (1 Corinthians 5:11)

At the end of the day, what makes a sexually immoral person such a target as opposed to all of the other sins on the list?

And then we get into discussions about the law and about how opposing gay marriage is just obedience to God.  Let me tell you something:  God never once commanded us to make laws regarding the morality of people outside the church.  In fact, He said something more like:

What business is it of mine to judge those outside the church? Are you not to judge those inside? (1 Corinthians 5:12)

Their sin is none of our business.

The more Christians speak out against gay rights, the more they talk about the sin issue, the more they put out literature talking about how Gay people are sold to sin and more likely to abuse children and get drunk and have “depraved sexual relations” that “go against God”… the more I think about people like my friend, with the razor to their wrist, thinking that there is nothing to do but die.

Let me tell you what Hell is:

It’s a church so focused on sin that it’s forgotten how to love.

We have absolutely no business talking about the sexuality of those not in the church.

It goes against the Bible.

And for those inside the church, we should talk about it quietly, in confidence, not blast about it on the internet for every suicidal 19 year old gay boy to see.

Just.

Stop.

For the love of God, think about what you are doing.

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Sacrificed to Idols.

Let’s talk about meat.

In Acts 21:25, it is stated that the Apostles had given the Gentiles a command to abstain from food sacrificed to idols, which seems straightforward.  By a legalistic standard, then, the fact that the Apostles had prayerfully considered the purity standard to which Gentiles should be held, and then asked them not to eat food sacrificed to idols (as well as cautioning them to eat unbloodied, or “kosher” meat) one should logically believe that this rule is Godly, and unchanging.

And yet:

1 Corinthians 8
Food Sacrificed to Idols
Now about food sacrificed to idols: We know that we all possess knowledge.  Knowledge puffs up, but love builds up. The man who thinks he knows something does not yet know as he ought to know. But the man who loves God is known by God.

So then, about eating food sacrificed to idols: We know that an idol is nothing at all in the world and that there is no God but one. For even if there are so-called gods, whether in heaven or on earth (as indeed there are many “gods” and many “lords”), yet for us there is but one God, the Father, from whom all things came and for whom we live; and there is but one Lord, Jesus Christ, through whom all things came and through whom we live.

But not everyone knows this. Some people are still so accustomed to idols that when they eat such food they think of it as having been sacrificed to an idol, and since their conscience is weak, it is defiled. But food does not bring us near to God; we are no worse if we do not eat, and no better if we do.

Be careful, however, that the exercise of your freedom does not become a stumbling block to the weak. For if anyone with a weak conscience sees you who have this knowledge eating in an idol’s temple, won’t he be emboldened to eat what has been sacrificed to idols? So this weak brother, for whom Christ died, is destroyed by your knowledge. When you sin against your brothers in this way and wound their weak conscience, you sin against Christ.  Therefore, if what I eat causes my brother to fall into sin, I will never eat meat again, so that I will not cause him to fall.

So here we discover why the Apostles thought it best that the Gentiles abstain from certain meats, or adhere to the Jewish purity code where food was concerned.  It was not that this law was necessary for holiness, but instead because not following it could become a barrier to understanding for others.  So one could paraphrase this passage in vaguer terms by saying, “Knowledge builds confidence but love builds understanding.  If you think you know everything, you don’t know much of anything yet…  …Be careful that your freedom under the law doesn’t lead to lawlessness for other people.  Because if someone without your understanding of God’s grace sees that you are freed from the law, won’t they be emboldened as well?  And in exercising their freedom, might they not be tempted into true sin?  So if your freedom leads one of your brothers away from God, haven’t you done a bad thing?  I would rather starve myself than be a barrier to others.”

And I agree.  I, too, would rather starve myself than become a barrier to others.  Which is why I am careful about which lines I cross and when I cross them. I might joke a certain way or say certain things when I’m out gaming with my friends, but I wouldn’t necessarily speak or behave in that way in Christian company, because I’m aware that by doing so I may either cause my contemporaries to question my faith or cause their children to question their parents authority, both things that have negative consequences.  And my stifling myself also can be misinterpreted as my being convicted that certain things are sin.  Which is also untrue- it’s possible to acknowledge something has negative consequences (food sacrificed to idols) without saying that it is outright sinful.

My dad always defined sin this way:  You are sinning when you are certain God has made a requirement of you, and you don’t obey.  God may ask you to never eat a banana again, a command that appears to have no qualitative moral value, but if you eat a banana after you and God had that conversation, you are sinning.

There are other things that are certainly more black and white.  Drunkenness, gluttony, laziness, lust.  These are all things that are condemned in no uncertain terms, as is selfishness and gossip.  There are large gray areas around things like the passages about Modesty in the Bible.  Take, for example, 1st Timothy 2:9&10, in which Timothy said that women should dress “modestly”, not with braided hair and jewelry and expensive clothing, but with good deeds and humility.

Now, braided hair and jewelry, in this day and age, is not really “showy”.  And how does one “dress” in good deeds?  It is obvious that Timothy was pointing not specifically at their dress, but at their attitude.  Isn’t it possible that these women had lost sight of what was really important?  That they were trying to demonstrate their status within the church by their appearance?  And then, doesn’t Timothy’s caution to dress in good deeds in humility make perfect sense as a response?  The rule given, that of hair and gold, then speaks not to a true code of dress but a way to prohibit the behavior he’s trying to get to the heart of.  It’s like if I were to be a youth pastor again, and all of the kids in my group were comparing cell phones instead of participating in the meditations.  As a good youth pastor I would say “leave your phone at the door”, not because God hates cell phones but because the phones would have become an impediment to holiness.

And thus rules do not always have intrinsic value as a rule, instead they have value in achieving holiness.  And when we consider the reasoning behind rules, we should consider the end goal with as much weight as we consider the rules.  I would introduce homosexuality at this point, but instead I’ll go the hetero way.  My mom likes to tell a story about a church that started logging complaints in the sixties because all the young women stopped wearing bras.  The parishioners kept asking the clergy to order women to wear bras or kick them out of the church, and eventually there was a promise that the problem would be addressed plainly.  How was it addressed?  By a prayer from the pulpit that the men in the church would learn to control their lust.

I use that as an example because we all have responsibilities to work on those things that we know are sins- and often that means stopping picking at other peoples splinters to deal with our own specks.  When we focus too much on the rules, we fall into legalism.  So let’s focus on what really matters.

Let’s focus on our own holiness.