"Did you hear about . . . . ?" said Elaine, her voice trailing off a bit as she lowers it, looks side-to-side, and begins to share the news with those in hearing range. Her fork is poised in the air over a plate of ham, sweet-potatoes, peas and carrots and a buttered piece of bread. Elaine is one of the best of the best when it comes to church gossip and ears quickly bend her way.
"Elaine, you're just like a dog returning to its vomit, I see," says the pastor in a calm and steady voice as he approaches her table.
Elaine stops, puts down her fork, squirms in her seat a bit, gathers her plate and purse and moves on down to another table.
"Well . . . I never!" she says. "Did you hear what he said to me? You will never believe."
Again, the voice interrupts: "Elaine, you gossip because you think it is fun, but you're just like a dog returning to its vomit."
Elaine, now in shock, sits, ponders, sets her fork gently down beside her plate and says "You're right, Pastor. I confess to the sin of gossip and I ask for your forgiveness and help in repentance."
"Sorry, Elaine," he answers. "This has gone on too long. You've confessed before and here you are, at it again. I don't think it is possible for you to ever stop gossiping. And, while I say this completely out of love for you, I think it's best for all of us if you just leave and not come back. We'll vote on it Sunday night, but basically, I think the tribe has spoken."
So Elaine puts out her torch, which means in this case, stifles her tongue, and leaves immediately. Life goes on, post-Elaine.
Obviously, this is a greatly-exaggerated account. Sin is more subtle; response more nuanced. The Elaines among us are not that blatant in their sin; the pastors not that direct in dealing with it; the church members not that silent an audience. But, in real life, there is a great deal of confusion about how to deal with sin among the believers, particularly when the sin seems to have so firm a grip and especially when that sin is something that we can not easily dissect or dig down to the root cause. We see it flourish and, like a weed among the flowers, we want to pluck it out.
Of course the pastor does not intervene and Elaine is not removed. She finishes her pie and her story with a flourish, confident that her words will be repeated by others, giving her a sense of belonging she can't seem to find any other way. She keeps on top of all the latest because she needs to be needed and knows no other way. Her sin is gossip; her fear is loneliness. We should start with her fear.
Andy gets antsy about halfway through the prayer meeting, looks at his watch and yawns. The pastor noticed Andy was pretty bleary-eyed already when he came into the church, but Andy just explained that he'd been glued to his computer all afternoon, trying to get a big project done. Andy was anxious to get home and finish the project in his home office: feasting on XXX pornography over the Internet.
Like a dog returning to its vomit? Perhaps. Extending a season of fun? Maybe. More likely feeding a secret addiction that has wrapped itself so tightly around Andy that most of life has now been squeezed from him and he is bound to meaningless images and fantasies that strip him of any dignity and slowly drain from him all the sensitivity he once had toward his wife and children.
Lindsey is 17. As usual, she has worn her favorite long-sleeved turtle-neck pull-over to church and sits in a silent, pouty position at the far end of a back-of-the-room pew. She is listening in, but looking down as she rubs her arms and twists her hands, fighting back tears, but smiling weakly whenever she's approached.
"Are you okay, honey?" a sweet voice asks.
"I'm fine," she answers, mustering her familiar weak smile, her bangs hanging over her dark eyes.
"Well, of course you are, sweetheart," comes the reply. "And God loves you just the way you are."
Lindsey will cut herself in the bathroom when she gets back home, inflicting another physical scar for the pain she feels inside and can't reveal. And then she'll give her mom and dad a peck on the cheek and lay in bed wishing for sleep, longing for peace.
Terrance skipped church altogether on this Wednesday night and is walking along the trails of the city park a few blocks from his home as the sun slowly dips behind the trees. He collapses on a wooden bench and puts his head in his folded arm, looking every bit the part of a breathless runner who has pushed himself to the limit and needs to rest. He is at his limit. He hates himself because he is not like the other boys at his high school and he doesn't know why and he's afraid to ask himself or anyone else. The dark descends like a comfortable blanket, hiding him. He wants to cry.
"If I'm gay, I may as well just kill myself before my Dad does."
Prayers are wrapping up in the comfy sanctuary. All the pending surgeries have been covered. Missions have been blessed. Traveling mercies extended. All have confessed their weekly falling short, and everyone is ready for a little free time in front of the TV. The DVRs are getting full and need relief.
Elaine and Andy and Lindsey and Terrance are sinners, awash in their own shame, hardened by the indifference of the Christians around them, those who are to be known by their love. All four need surgery. They're all a mission. They're traveling . . . and they really need some mercy. Their lives are playing out like the scripted dramas everyone is rushing home to submerge themselves in . . . but they're real. And they're Christians . . . and God does indeed love them just as they are. But if He loves them too much to leave them there, why don't we? If he can acknowledge their sin and respond with His grace, why can't we? If He can look straight into their hearts, why are we looking over their heads?
Maybe they should come out of their closets? Elaine should just confess that she's a sad, lonely and empty woman who wants attention so badly she will spin tales for it. Andy should just come clean and tell everyone that instead of having real relationships, he slips himself into naked fantasies, in vulgar opposition to the life he models in his deacon role. Lindsey should explain that she is punishing herself at 17 because at 16 she gave her body away to a 19-year-old who said he loved all of her . . . and then left her to go love all of someone else. And Terrance? Terrance should share about his self-hatred, acknowledge the sense of rejection that triggers his misguided search for his masculine identity through improper same-sex interaction and his concerns about an eroding resistance to temptation.
Unsaved? Not Terrance. Not Lindsey . . . or Andy or Elaine. Precious ones, never alone in their sin, but accompanied by a Savior who knows Elaine could spread blessings instead of gossip, that Andy could live and love in reality, deleting the addictive fantasies that have claimed his mind, that Lindsey could forgive herself and wash away the mistakes of her past, that Terrance could see himself as God sees Him, instead of seeing himself as the broken one with no choice but to submit to the world's definitions.
Christians all, but guarding secrets in what should be the most loving and healing environment on earth, the church. These four represent so many Christians who struggle in secret with the things of this world, surrounded by people who should be safe and welcoming, known by their love, pouring out forgiveness, willing and able to hear the confessions, extending grace, offering a shoulder for comfort, a hand for support, a word of encouragement and a pledge of accountability through the walk of repentance. While he should be hearing "come on out," the sinner in the secret closet sees himself more like the spider who tiptoes through the space below the door only to find someone waiting with a broom and a dustpan on the other side.
For most sinners, the fear of what will happen if they emerge from the closet is greater than the fear of the sin locked inside there with them. In my decades-long struggle with homosexuality, habitual cover-up had a greater hold on me in some ways than did my habitual sin. The what-might-happen seemed more threatening than the what-was. I would do almost anything to keep from being discovered . . . and eventually I convinced myself that exposure of my sin would harm more people than the practice of it. Suffering through the struggle in silence was better than the risk of real-time retribution. In time, all of it -- the secrecy and the revelation resulted in an avalanche of epic proportions and seemingly uncountable victims. There was no longer enough room in my closet for all the junk I accumulated. It was spilling out the door, leaving a trail of sinful crumbs down the hall.
Maybe we should all come out of our closets? We who accepted the sacrifice of Jesus so we would not die in our sins. We who praise Him for His love and hoard our own, as if He could not provide it amply to extend to others. We who mutter "there but for the grace of God go I" and then stand by and watch others go there. We who crave mercy but are too distracted to share it. We who are so clean, washed as white as snow, startled into silence by the stains of others. Snug in our eternal life, we watch others die around us. We who walk in the light, but quench it in our closets of comfort.
Do we, for some reason, think our callousness about the ravaging toll sin takes on our brothers and sisters somehow shows us to be strong . . . because we are unwavering in our righteousness . . . and our determination to keep our hands clean?
God knows what the Elaines and the Lindseys and the Andys and the Terrances are going through, how they got there, and when and if they are going to get through it and beyond it. And He also already knows how He will use their struggle for His glory and to accomplish His will. Maybe they're not so happy about the journey on which He has allowed them to embark, but he knows how long the tunnel is and who can help them make it through. He also knows already whether you are going to respond or reject. He knows whether you will venture out of your safe closet to help them clean up theirs.
If "they," the observant non-believers -- whoever they are and we really should want to know -- are to know us by our love, then we may never be known. Not if we cannot bring ourselves to embrace the broken ones that Christ has placed within easy reach: the Elaines, Andys, Lindseys and Terrances that pull themselves together enough to come into this place in hope there will be more than peas and prayers.
We can only blame it on culture for so long . . . and then we need to unfold our shoulders and bear the load. We need to stop giving in, declaring hopelessness, wagging our heads with faces curved by condemning grimaces, removing the sins that might taint us by driving the bearer from our midst.
In truth, some Christians do reflect the love of God and display His grace . . . but they need some reinforcements. The ever-increasing wounded who can only be healed through the love of Christ, shared without restraint by the redeemed.
As imperfect as our church may be, these sinners will not find something better beyond our walls. They do not wash away sins "out there," they celebrate them and proclaim them as identity, taking pride. If we see our brothers sinning, but dismiss even the slightest hint of a true desire to repent and fold our arms in front of us in in defense instead of wrapping our arms around their shoulders, it is we who have surrendered, not they. Will it be warmer out there around the fire of distorted acceptance? Shall we just wish them "god speed," and give them no reason to even continue to believe there is a God . . . who lives inside us?
Come out of the closet. Andy's pornography addiction will not defile you when you make a plan to call him up and check on him and set up some time to get together for healthy distraction. Lindsey's past looseness will not topple you from your purity when you listen to her cry and tell her that not only does God love her, but you do too . . . and that you will stay by her side as she walks out of her past. You will not become gay by standing with Terrance as he searches for the person God created him to be and walk with him through the trials and struggles of seeking wholeness. You won't lose your reputation by loving Elaine and listening to the truthful needs of her heart as she shifts to sharing blessings. Your love might be one she shares.
Jesus was a gentle savior who reached out his hands to those in pain, who knew the secrets of the strugglers and did not turn away, who stooped down to lift up, who risked his own reputation to help others build a new one. He knew how to love . . . and He told us to be like Him.
We're so often not. Maybe that's why we're in the closet.
In His pain, he freed us all. In our pain, we bind others up in theirs. Unable to share our own failings, we hide them behind our holiness and increase the intensity others feel by comparison. In the light of our inflated righteousness, their wretched sinfulness retains a greater grip on them as they strive to keep it from being seen. In the discomfort of our own cover-ups, we overcompensate in pointing at others when their covers are pulled back. We didn't want to know . . . but well . . . now that we do . . . we've go to do . . . something.
God must surely wonder how we can be so blessed and so bereft of sharing it. The abundance is unimaginable, but we bury it instead of investing it. Do we for some reason believe He can't handle all of this?
Some are in closets of cloistered Christianity. Others are in closets of condemnation. Whichever closet you are in, there is no reason to be there. Not with overflowing grace, unlimited forgiveness, boundless mercy, unfathomable love, enduring healing, eternal peace.
Please come out. Someone stands at your door and knocks.
Give Elaine something to really talk about.
(Do you need encouragement in dealing with your struggle? E-mail me at firstname.lastname@example.org. Also, please consider purchasing a copy of "Who Told You You Were Naked?" or "Surviving Sexual Brokenness." I think the insight and the experience s I write about in my books will help you.)