The Pastor's Buzz

Pastor Buzz Trexler's blog for God's people in The Meadow.

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Name: Buzz Trexler
Location: Knoxville, Tennessee, United States

Journalist for 29 years; married to Donna for 28 years; parent of David, 27, and Elizabeth, 24; pastor of Green Meadow United Methodist Church in Alcoa since 2002.

Monday, December 05, 2005

'Disturbing Voices' indeed ...

A little more than a week ago, news outlets reported that about 2,000 evangelical pastors gathered at Rick Warren’s Saddleback Church in Orange County, Calif., to discuss how to start local AIDS ministries and free HIV testing in churches.

The national conference, tagged "Disturbing Voices," appears to represent a change in mission for many churches; however, it’s not for a lack of having been called to do so in the past, nor for a lack of awareness.

My first memory of the church — evangelical and otherwise — being publicly called to minister in compassion to AIDS sufferers goes back to the 1980s.

While it wasn’t the huge money-making machine that it is today, contemporary Christian musicians gathered en masse in 1988 to perform and release "Do You Feel Their Pain?" The song was co-written by Steve Camp, who is not known for soft-pedaling the Gospel, and called for greater compassion and increased ministry to AIDS sufferers. Consider this lyrical plea:

"Have we failed again — talking about the love of God, but judging those who need it most?

"All these afflicted ones, I feel their lives just fade away, left to face the end alone.

"So we say a prayer for their needs; afraid to touch, to hurt, to bleed.

"Do you feel their pain? Has it touched your life? Can you taste the salt in the tears they cry? Will you love them more than the hate that's been? Will you love them back to life again?"

So, why did so many churches fail to respond?

Many believe it is likely due to the early labeling of AIDS as a "gay disease." However, the question is this: Even if the disease is the result of risky sexual contact — whether heterosexual or homosexual — should that be any valid reason for a lack of compassion on the part of Christians, conservative or otherwise?

In response to the "Disturbing Voices" initiative, Harry Knox, director of the religion and faith program at the Human Rights Campaign Foundation — a leading gay rights organization — told The AP that he welcomed the outreach as long as it wasn’t judgmental.

"For far too long, many radical right pastors have mischaracterized the disease for their own political purposes and we have reaped the unfortunate reward of that misinformation," he said. "It is good news that evangelicals are now embracing people with HIV and AIDS to help us get our needs met."

As for a nonjudgmental response, we can only hope and pray. Because there are those today who would even deny church membership to homosexuals, disregarding the fact that all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God. If we bar the door to those who fall victim to particular temptations, then we are not walking in the way of Christ.

In November 1995, the late Rich Mullins was in concert in Knoxville and told a story that stopped this writer in his tracks. Rich’s story was later recounted in the June 1997 edition of CCM magazine that was devoted to AIDS, Christian artists and the church.

Rich said he befriended a man at a steakhouse while hiking along the Appalachian Trail. As darkness fell, the man (whom the magazine refers to as "John) offered Rich a ride back to his campsite. As the truck pulls out of town, John speaks up.

John: I probably oughta tell you that I’m gay.

Rich: I probably oughta tell you that I’m a Christian.

John: Well do you want to get out of the truck?

Rich: No. It’s still getting dark, and (my camp) is still four miles up the road.

John: But I thought Christians hated gays.

Rich: That’s really weird. My understanding of what Christ told us was that Christians were to love. I didn’t know there were a lot of parameters set on that.

John: I thought God hated gays.

Rich: That’s funny, because I thought God is love, and He has no choice but to love because that is what He is.

John: Do you believe AIDS is God’s punishment on gays?

Rich: Well possibly, in the same sense that presidents are God’s punishment on voters. I mean there are consequences. We make choices, and there are natural consequences for those choices.

John: Will I go to hell for being gay?

Rich: (I was ready to go, "Well, yes, of course, you’ll go to hell for being gay." But that was one of those moments when the Good News really impressed me. What I heard myself say was ...) No, of course you won’t go to hell for being gay any more than I would go to hell for being dishonest. The only reason anybody ever went to hell was because they rejected the grace that God so longed to give them.

John: I grew up in the church, and I’ve never heard anybody say that God loved me.

Rich: I think that of all the diseases in the world, the disease that all humankind suffers from, the disease that is most devastating to us is not AIDS, it’s not gluttony, it’s not cancer, it’s not any of those things. It is the disease that comes about because we live in the ignorance of the wealth of love that God has for us. What a great message we in the church have. It’s relevant to people with AIDS and people without AIDS. It’s relevant to homosexuals and homophobes. It’s relevant to Republicans and Democrats, to abortionists and anti-abortionists. It’s relevant across the board.

As Rich finished the story at Knoxville Civic Auditorium on that fall night, I could not help but look around and expect to see youth pastors quickly ushering their kids out the door. Instead, I saw people intently listening to this tale of grace.

Now, nearly 20 years after “Do You Feel Their Pain?” and 10 years after Rich told that story in Knoxville, it remains “news” when a large number of churches decide to minister to those who are battling AIDS.

To be sure, there are those already involved in such ministry, in some manner or fashion, and for that we give God the glory.

But May God have mercy on the rest of us when we are selective in which least, last and lost we choose to serve.