For the last 20 years I’ve been collecting stories. Primarily the stories of people who have wrestled with resolving their faith and sexuality. Some because it was their own personal journey, others because of the close-up experience of their own child or of a beloved family member. Then there are the few rare souls who have come to see on their own that our questions of faith and sexuality our far more complex than we’ve realized.
We celebrated the passing of one of those rare souls yesterday.
He preached for a church in a mid-size town in west Texas. A town that was home to a small Christian university where alumni gathered every year at the school’s homecoming celebration. It was on that Sunday morning of homecoming that the preacher demonstrated a deeper love than many were ready for at the time.
A love that pierces the hardest of hearts.
Love that meets us where we are and walks alongside us, whether we ever arrive or not.
When I heard the preacher tell the story decades later, I couldn’t help but wonder what impact this event might have had on me had I been there.
Had I been part of this particular church.
At that particular time in my life.
To hear Lynn tell the story, it was the Sunday morning of Abilene Christian University’s Homecoming, so the Highland Church auditorium was packed, with visitors from all over the country. It was “standing room only” and the singing filled the rafters! Still back in the days of “extending the invitation” to “come forward,” “whatever your need,” at the close of Lynn’s sermon, everyone stood and started singing the “invitation song.” As was customary, the preacher would stand at the front, ready to greet anyone who came to be baptized or ask for prayers.
So on that Sunday when a certain man started making his way out of the pew to walk down the aisle, Lynn spotted him and started walking toward him. Greeting the man when he was still only halfway to the front of the auditorium, Lynn wrapped his arms around the guy in the warmest embrace. Lynn had talked with the man earlier in the week, learning of his painful history with church – believing he couldn’t ever fully belong, he had left years earlier. Like so many of our brothers around that time in the mid-1980s, he had contracted HIV and now found himself dying of AIDS. He found solace in Lynn and the Highland church that took him in, caring for him until he died.
At the height of the AIDS crisis when so many of our sons and brothers were dying, having been kicked out of families and ostracized from churches – this church was different.
Because their preacher was different.
In 2013 we had a CenterPeace conference in San Antonio at the Northside Church of Christ and Lynn preached for us at the Sunday morning service. He shared that story. A story of radical love, when such inclusion was unthinkable.
I wondered then, and I still question, what impact might that experience – or even just hearing the story – have had on my life? Would I have felt safer to talk to someone sooner than I did? Would I have felt safer to come out, being in a church that I knew responded like this? Would I have felt safer talking to a preacher who responded like this?
I can’t say for sure, for it was an awfully scary time.
But hearing how Lynn responded to this man – seeing him hug this man in the middle of the aisle in front of a packed auditorium, full of visitors – would this have emboldened me to talk to him? Would this scene have given me the courage to come out earlier, having seen his gracious response? Would that have been enough? Knowing the church provided and cared for him until his death?
I don’t know.
It surely would’ve been a start.
But you see, it takes more than the preacher for a church to be safe. People said really hurtful things back then. There was such overwhelming fear of what we didn’t yet understand.
And in some ways, in some places, in some people, that still hasn’t changed.
All I know for certain is that it surely would’ve done my heart good to see a preacher in 1985 walk clear up the aisle – not wait for him to walk all the way to the front by himself – but to go and greet him mid-way. I know I would’ve been paying attention to that. I would’ve tucked that bit of knowledge about this man, this preacher – this Lynn Anderson – and maybe, just maybe, I might have felt safe enough to go and talk to him.
I never had a conversation with Lynn about his theology of sexuality or what he believed the Bible taught about marriage and same-sex relationships. We might have disagreed. But I watched him stand by people whom others had given up on, living out the grace and radical love of Jesus that he had always preached.
A rare soul, indeed.