R. York Moore, an experienced evangelist, knew how to hate the sin, but only discovered how hard it was to step into uncomfortable territory and love the sinner, when his neighbor barged confidently into his life.
adapted from Growing Your Faith by Giving It Away by R. York Moore
John and Gary were the gay neighbors I tried to avoid. When they walked their dog or drove up to their home, I'd conveniently look the other way or at the most give the obligatory half-wave and nod. But I never went out of my way to connect with them.
John was in his mid-40s, completely bald, with a Buddha-like potbelly. He spoke flamboyantly with grandiose hand gestures, and his smoked glasses framed sunken brown eyes. Gary was a more confident man with a full head of gray hair, a clean-shaven professional look and a Hollywood smile.
The openness of their 12-year relationship made me both angry and sad. The Christian mantra says we're supposed to love the sinner and hate the sin, but for me, that was easier said than done with openly practicing homosexual neighbors.
TESTING THE LINES
Shortly after I moved into the Detroit suburb, Tim, the neighborhood gossip, told me that John and Gary were the social butterflies on the block. "They throw quite a party," he said, "but I usually leave before the drunken gay sex begins."
I'd been in my house for two months when I got an invitation to one of John and Gary's notorious parties. Naturally, I declined the offer. A few weeks later, I spoke with Tim again.
"Yeah, John and Gary said that 'Preacher Boy' wouldn't come to their gay party. They said they were testing you to see if you'd judge them," he said.
Hearing this disappointed and angered me, but I was also relieved to know that my refusal had drawn a definite line between John and Gary and myself.
A year went by. I married Jodi in the spring. We were both very excited about reaching out to our neighborhood as a couple and that fall, we began making plans for an outreach dinner party. We personally delivered invitations to each neighbor, as we visited the houses and spent time talking with people. When we came to John and Gary's house, we rang the doorbell, waited a moment, and then I told Jodi, "Well, it doesn't look like they're home; just leave the flier in the door."
My wife looked at me curiously—I had knocked persistently at the other houses. Nevertheless, she followed me down the stairs and back to our home. The RSVPs from our other neighbors were overwhelming, and Jodi and I looked forward to a full house in just a few weeks.
When the day of the party arrived, we spent hours cleaning, decorating and preparing. We had three glittering tables of desserts laid out like something out of Martha Stewart Living. Scented candles, music, delicious food—it was perfect. Suddenly the doorbell rang and about a dozen neighbors arrived. What more could we ask for? Nearly half the block came, and it wasn't long before an energetic buzz filled the room. People were excited to be there, they were talkative, they were open, and just as the topic turned to spiritual things, the doorbell rang again.
John and Gary hadn't RSVP'd, but there they were, standing in our living room with matching gay pride sweatshirts. What a disaster, I thought. But we invited them in, took their coats and introduced them to everyone else.
It wasn't long before John and Gary commandeered the conversation and steered it away from its spiritual direction, which left me not only angry but clueless as to what to do next. As the party went on, I actually gave up on trying to speak to anyone about God, and Jodi and I snuck off to talk about the situation.
We'd purchased the JESUS film for each of our neighbors and had wrapped it up with a bag of popcorn, intending to give the gifts to our guests at a strategic point in the spiritual conversation. Jodi and I stood in the kitchen, whispering.
"How about just giving them the video on their way out and using that to start conversations later?" I suggested.
"If you think that's best," she replied.
We watched the night dwindle away along with my favorite carrot cake, and then started showing our neighbors to the door, handing them their coats and the video. When John and Gary got up to leave, I said, "Well, here are your coats and this is a little something from us—it's a video about the life of Jesus."
John took the video, leaned toward Gary and said softly, "This will give us something to relax with together."
Great, I thought. I've given them a reason to sin.
The next few days, I couldn't get the party debacle off my mind. I began praying about how to proceed, and as I did, my sense of shame grew. I realized that I'd acted in cowardice. I had allowed John and Gary to take leadership and steer people away from hearing about Jesus. I had wasted everyone's time and a good deal of our own money.
That night, I asked God to forgive me for acting so cowardly, and He shook me to my spiritual core with His response: "You not only acted like a coward, you also failed," I sensed Him saying. "You failed to communicate my love to John and Gary."
"John and Gary! They're the ones who ruined everything," I answered.
A LACK OF LOVE
Usually when I spend time with someone, I'm perfectly comfortable not breaking into a Gospel presentation. Instead, I make it a point to get to know people socially first—without an agenda. But in this case, I was angry that John and Gary had torpedoed our party's evangelistic purpose—or that's what I told myself had happened.
As I wrestled with God in prayer, I started to see that He was using this to teach me about my lack of love and even hatred for homosexuals. For as long as I could remember, I'd always felt angry when speaking to or about gays and lesbians. God began to show me that I had used my belief in the sinfulness of homosexuality as an excuse not to show His love to John and Gary.
I allowed my fear—fear of looking judgmental and fear of failure in steering the conversation to spiritual things—to determine my actions. I allowed my lack of love for John and Gary to control me instead of the Holy Spirit or Christ's command to love my neighbor as myself.
The Good Samaritan story rang in my ears. Like the priest and the Levite selfishly passing by the dying man, I'd been passing by John and Gary. And I justified my cowardice and lack of love by their sinful lifestyle. But in God's eyes, a lack of initiative in the lives of our neighbors is as serious as playing an active part in their destruction. When we allow excuses about our neighbors' distance from God, their sin and their differences from us to prevent us from loving them courageously, we stand on the sidelines. We might as well watch them gasp their last breath, while we stand next to an ambulance.
I began to pray, albeit a safe prayer: "God, I ask that You would reach John and Gary. Bring other Christians into their lives who can relate to them and reach them with Your love."
SLUDGE AND SIN
A few months later, I was out front scooping the fall sludge of leaves and mud from our gutters and had just started down the ladder with a bulging trash bag, when John came around the corner, cigarette in hand.
"Do you pray?" he exclaimed, startling me so badly that I dropped the trash bag, spilling black sludge all over.
"What?" I asked him.
"Do you pray, being a minister and all?"
"Yes. Why do you ask?" I made my way down the ladder and over the sludge to the porch, where I took off my gloves and sat down to hear the reason for John's unexpected inquiry.
"I can't really go into much detail," John began, "but I want to start praying because I'm going through some trials. I know you're a minister, and I wanted you to pray with me."
I forced the words out of my mouth. "Sure, I think that would be good—can you tell me more about what you're going through so I know how to pray?"
John paused a minute, then said, "Well, I may be facing disciplinary action at my job for something I did. There's a big inquiry going on, and I'm afraid of what may happen." He proceeded to tell me one of the most disturbing stories of debauchery I'd ever heard. In short, because of his own twisted sexual exploits with students over the years, he was being blackmailed, he was in danger of losing his teaching job and was concerned he may be HIV-positive.
"I'm afraid of what may happen and afraid of Gary finding out," John finished.
I sat dumbfounded. This man's life was like the trail of sludge seeping from the bag in front of us. And it was the same sludge leaking out of my own heart toward John. As he spilled out his problems to me, I felt dirty inside.
"Have you ever studied the Bible?" I asked.
"Yes," John responded. "In fact, I write spiritual poetry for church sometimes."
"I wonder if you and I could get together to look at the Bible and pray. We could start what I call a GIG, which stands for a 'group investigating God.' A GIG is a laid-back way of discussing spiritual things using the Bible as our guide.
"Do you have a Bible?" I asked.
"Sure do! What day works for you?" John responded.
I couldn't believe it. I was setting up a six-week Bible study commitment with my gay neighbor. We set a date and time and John went as he'd come, hand swaggering, smoking his cigarettes.
GIVING GOOD NEWS
My meetings with John began a couple of weeks later. Admittedly, I was nervous. Right on time, John came walking down the street. He had a giddy look on his face and was sporting baggy shorts and an oversized button-down shirt. He carried a beat-up Bible, and he walked much more directly than I was used to seeing. He marched confidently up to the door.
"I brought some of my poetry for you to read," he said on his way in.
"Great," I responded. "Let me take a look at it."
He was obviously excited that I'd read his poetry and encouraged me to hold on to it for a while to think about it. I was sincerely honored.
We started our first GIG by studying Luke 15, the Prodigal Son parable. The interaction at the end between the father and the dutiful son who had never strayed particularly struck John. The father's acceptance of the rebellious son moved him.
John was hooked.
As the neighborhood looked on, we continued to meet together, studying the Bible and praying in the afternoons in my living room. I began to care less and less how things looked between John and me as I saw God working in some miraculous ways. He came exactly on time each week. He did the homework. He even got upset when I had to reschedule one week because of travel.
John's problems at work continued to fluctuate as he dealt with the fallout of his actions. However, he grew decreasingly concerned about those issues—it seemed they would die down soon. He also discovered that he hadn't contracted HIV after all.
He was taking baby steps toward God, and I was watching it happen before my very eyes. One afternoon, my neighbor Tim stopped me across my backyard fence and asked, "So what are you and John doing? I see him coming over all the time."
Here it was—the hour of reckoning.
I took a deep breath, said a quick prayer and responded, "John and I have been studying the Bible each week. It has been great!"
My excitement took Tim by surprise. "Oh, well, that's great," he said. "I'm a little surprised that John would study the Bible, being gay and all."
His comment blew the door wide open. Tim thought all Christians hated gays, protested the gay lifestyle and would have nothing to do with gays aside from telling them they were going to hell. Admittedly, much of his perception would've been true of my own life had God not given me a love for my neighbor. John was still locked in sin and rebellion against God, but God had freed me to love him.
During my last GIG with John before the summer ended, we studied the story Jesus tells in Luke 18 of the religious leader and the tax collector who go to the temple to pray.
"The religious leader prays with confidence, even arrogance, bragging to God about what he has done," I explained to John. "The tax collector, convicted of his sin, prays almost despairingly, lamenting and asking God to be merciful to him.
"John, if we're going to have a relationship with God, we must acknowledge our inadequacy before Him. We have to call on Him for mercy and look to what He's done on the cross through Jesus to provide forgiveness for sin."
As I explained the Gospel, John looked as if the Holy Spirit had him by the ear. I pressed on. "We've been studying for some time now, but I think God wants you to take the next step. I believe God is speaking to you and calling you personally to make a decision today about your sin and your trust in Jesus."
I wasn't talking about his sexual sin. I don't believe that sharing Christ with gays and lesbians needs to center on convincing them that their lifestyle is sinful. We need to help them understand their underlying sin sickness in general.
For the first time in our relationship, John cracked.
The veneer of confidence and self-reliance broke. "After I went to college, I looked for God," he started. "I wanted a relationship with Him, but I was angered and turned away by the Christians I tried to get to know."
His eyes began to well up. "I decided to run as far away from God and Christians as I possibly could," he continued. "But then you moved here. I've been seeing God in our friendship and in the Bible, but I just don't know."
We talked and prayed that day for some time. He never made a decision to become a Christian or to leave Gary, but while I lived in that neighborhood, God blessed us with a good friendship. Over the course of it, I believe John was confronted time and time again with the person of Jesus and His call to repent and find life.
Eventually, we lost touch when I moved nearly an hour away, but I have to believe that if nothing else happened, John lost his rigid, determined hatred for Christians and legitimately encountered Jesus and the beauty of the Gospel. Moreover, God used John in my life to make me more like Jesus. Just because the adventure of evangelism primarily moves from the Christian to the lost doesn't mean that positive influence doesn't flow from the lost to the Christian.
In fact, that's exactly what happened when Peter shared Christ with Cornelius in Acts 10—God dealt with Peter's racism. In the same way, God used a conniving, arrogant, decadent gay man to reveal my weaknesses in evangelism, to bring an end to my fear and cowardice and break me of my lack of love.
Adapted from Growing Your Faith by Giving It Away by R. York Moore. Copyright (c) 2005 by R. York Moore. Used with permission of InterVarsity Press, P.O. Box 1400, Downers Grove, IL 60515. ivpress.com
This content originally appeared in the March/April 2006 issue of Outreach magazine, the gathering place for ideas, insights and stories of today's outreach-oriented church leaders. For more ideas and information, visit outreachmagazine.com .
Copyright © 2006 Outreach.