When All the Church Can Say is “I’m Sorry”

When All the Church Can Say is “I’m Sorry” June 27, 2012

Two weeks after we arrived in Portland, Amy (my wife and new senior pastor at First Christian Church in downtown Portland) decided she needed to do something meaningful to express her voice as a person of faith in the community. There already were the folks handing out tracts down on the campus of Portland State University, which is definitely not us. There were plenty of community leaders to meet, hands to shake and even media outlets to connect with so we’d have a better handle on key circles of influence.

But none of what was really what we had in mind.

The annual Pride fest was taking place that weekend along the banks of the Willamette River, and we knew we should probably go. Folks in our new congregation are in various stages in their journey of discerning where they are with regard to sexual orientation, but overall, it’s an incredibly open and loving place for all people. There are gay singles and couples who attend regularly, and who participate in leadership and other ministries like everyone else. But the fact of the matter is that most people outside the walls of the church don’t know that. And honestly, how will they ever know if we’re not willing to tell them?

Better yet, why not show them?

It’s one thing to tell people they are welcomed and loved, or even to show them with action. But too often, I think even the more open faith communities want only to look forward, without acknowledging the profound damage that has been done to so many in the name of God and their own faith.

As all of us learned back in Kindergarten, though, saying you’re sorry is a necessary step toward healing. It’s not fun and it can be incredibly vulnerable, but it’s that kind of vulnerable humility to which we are called both by the words and deeds of Jesus. So why do Christians seem to have such a hard time actually doing it?

For some it’s a matter of fear. They don’t want to be judged, ridiculed, taunted or singled out. Well, join the club, because plenty of folks have felt they were on the receiving end of such treatment by the church for far too long. For others, it’s a matter of accountability; they simply don’t see why they should apologize for something they may not have done personally. But if we’re truly all part of the same Body, if we’re in covenant to hold ourselves mutually accountable, then when one transgresses, we all bear the burden of making it right. And for a few, it’s a simple matter of ignorance. They are so comfortable in their own Christian bubble that they don’t even realize such damage is being done in the name of the faith they claim. But again, it’s incumbent on those of us who do know it’s going on – all the time, mind you – to educate them.

That’s why Amy had the sandwich boards made. They were based on a billboard a pastor friend of our named Rich McCullen created and posted near his Mission Gathering Church in San Diego. We knew the second we saw it that the message was both brilliant and necessary. They nailed it. But we wanted to take it a step further. To physically wear such a sign around town, especially at a Gay Pride festival, is pretty disconcerting. People might laugh. They might spit at you or even assault you. Granted, we did have our kids with us, but if someone had particularly strong feelings about it, there’s no telling what they might do.

After all, any true Christian knows that sticking with your convictions and carrying them with you, even when it’s not convenient, can carry a very heavy price. But that’s when it’s most important.

It was a good thing that she had the sign placed both on the front and back of her body, because some people didn’t really want us to know they were reading it. They’d wait until we passed by, the do a 180 and gawk at the words in bright red letters. We kept waiting for the first verbal salvo, but they never came. In fact, people started coming up and asking if they could take a picture. Some put their arms around her and had friends snap photos for their Facebook page like she was a celebrity. Others offered a quiet but heartfelt word of forgiveness. Some cried. Others gave her high-fives. Some even stopped what they were doing to share stories about their own pain at the hands of Christians.

The whole experience was exhilarating, partly because it started out being utterly terrifying. It could have gone very differently, and in a different context, it still might. But that doesn’t mean that more people don’t aren’t dying to hear those simple words of apology.

I’m almost to the point that I’m convinced no Christian, Christ Follower, Disciples or whatever they call themselves has any right to share their story of faith with others unless they’re willing to start with a humble and sincere apology. It’s a little bit emasculating, and it places us at a distinct power disadvantage with the person to whom we’re speaking. But that’s just the point. So often we reach out, emboldened and armed with the truth, and with the full force and conviction of our church behind us. But that’s not the kind of messiah we claim.

Yes, people called out to Jesus to save them, and he did indeed offer salvation. Just not in the way they had expected. They longed for a conqueror to ride in, kick ass and take names, but instead he arrived as the Suffering Servant, vulnerable to the worst that humanity could bear to heap on him.

It was only in doing so that he could truly affirm his message that LOVE WINS. Other, more aggressive approaches might have left a greater short-term impact, but they would not have set the context for a faith founded upon the principles of peace, love, compassion and reconciliation. I don’t consider myself any kind of fundamentalist, but when it comes to the call of every Christian, it is the only way.

And at least on that one day on the riverbank in Portland, it worked.

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  • I’ve been out of the blogging world for a number of reasons lately, but I’m really glad I took a moment to read this, Christian. Thanks so much for apologizing on behalf of us who couldn’t be present with you. I suspect we’ll be apologizing at Pride parades for years (decades?) to come. And that most certainly isn’t a bad thing. As you said, it’s quite the opposite – it’s essential if we are ever to truly love our neighbors as ourselves.

  • Daneya

    Thanks to you and Amy for always being such great allies. 

  • Tamalyn Kralman

    Oh. My. Gosh. You two are wonderful. We’ve got our Pride festival coming up in a couple of weeks. (In Bellingham we wait until mid-July, when we’re pretty sure we won’t get drenched by Mother Nature.) May we steal your sandwich board idea? I think it’s brilliant. And absolutely necessary. I may not actually make sandwich boards, but a sign for the table would be very helpful. 

    And thank you for continuously being willing to speak out with integrity and faith. My job was just threatened for doing just that. Sigh. I love your courage. I’m clinging to mine with the tips of my fingers and the sharpest edges of my wee, little teeth!

    • please do steal away. we borrowed the idea from Mission Gathering, and they borrowed from someone else for the billboard. We’re all in this together! 

  • That is moving.  Thank you.

  • Eeshining

    At another Pride Day parade–I forget what city, Christians in a group wore black tee shirts with “I’m Sorry” printed on them in white. There were photos of hands being clasped and people hugging between parade people and the group and people watching the parade, too. Your actions, Tamalyn, another commenter here, and the Christians in that city I can’t remember represent the witness of the Love God and Jesus has given us, and how we are “doing greater works than He” as He said we would. Hallelujah!

  • Sherrill Morris

    Some time we (read you perhaps or maybe as a group discussion) should discuss your comment that giving a heart felt apology was a little emasculating.  Perhaps that has something to do with the state of male/female power roles today, but I just can’t imagine Jesus being emasculated, even a bit, by giving an apology.  Okay, maybe with the woman who was a Syrophonecian….  Anyhow, could we have a group/comment discussion of that statement after you posted a reflection on it?  I’m not trying to call you on the carpet about something you said that was honest for you, but it would be something that I’m guessing is honest for a lot of men, yet maybe not the most helpful for women.  Just a thought at 4 am, take it for what it’s worth.

    • Absolutely. Actually, we’re launching a new blog for the Good Men Project on July 1, and this would be a great topic to write on there.

  • Mary

    Wonderful idea. It goes to show that there are good Christians who take the command “Love thy neighbor” seriously.

  • What I don’t understand is this; We KNOW selling our daughters into slavery is wrong, heck we know SLAVERY is wrong.  Yet these things were, of course, condoned by the bible.  Why can’t Christians just say, “That was wrong.  We know better now.”  And THEN they can go on to say, ” Oh and that bit about killing men who have sex together?  Yeah, that was wrong too and we don’t believe that nonsense anymore.”  I mean how does admitting that, in some places, the bible is just flat WRONG in any way take away from the message of Jesus or his mission?

    • Nathan Duffy

       Many Christians, the vast majority throughout history, believe the Bible to be the inspired Word of God. God being wrong is a difficult theological problem, no? You seem to think it’s an easy one, I assume by dispensing with the notion that it is the inspired Word of God? That may solve one “problem”, but it creates about 10x as many as it eliminates.

      • Mary

        The God of the Bible commands his followers to murder, rape, enslave and even commit human sacrifice, so how can any rational person think that the Bible is the “Word of God”?

        It is time that Christians admit that a good deal of the Bible was written by brutal and evil men. The Bible was “inspired” by God, not written by God. Take the good out of it and chuck the rest.

        I may be offending a lot of people here but then the truth hurts, doesn’t it?

        • Mary

          I just want to add that I do respect those of you who live up to the best of what Jesus taught. My argument is with those who insist that EVERYTHING the Bible teaches is inerrant. I would wager that most of these people are either unaware of much of what the Bible teaches or else they rationalize it away somehow (I was one of the later).

    • Laurie

      The actions of people in the Bible, and the teachings of Jesus are different.  Selling our daughters into slavery was not a teaching of Christ.  Loving our neighbors and our enemies is.   There has to be an understanding that there is a difference.  Just because there are historical events and lifestyles talked about in the Bible, does not make them “condoned” by the Bible.   The Bible “teaches” that marriage is one man and one woman, but the lifestyle of many faithful Fathers of the Faith was to have many wives.  They were sinful.  That does not mean that it is ok to have many wives because it’s talked about in the Bible.  Jesus DOES make it very clear that homosexuality is a sin.  That is a “teaching”.  What many Christians fail to do is continue to love the person, even though their lifestyle is sinful.  Loving the sinner while hating the sin is a difficult distinction that many Christians can’t seem to make.    Apologizing for mistreating people who are leading a different lifestyle is good, but Christians should not be apologizing for saying that homosexuality is a sin anymore than saying stealing and murdering are sins.  It’s the truth, but we should still love the people.  If we hated all sinners, there would be no one left.

    • how can the Bible be right and wrong- God says He does not lie either the Bible is completely right or completely wrong you can’t have both- all Scripture is given BY GOD…II Timothy 3:16

  • Nathan Duffy

    Am I to understand that the sign referenced in this piece had the words of the .JPG contained in this piece?

  • Alonso

    he who chooses to be friend of the world becomes an enemy of God.