In 2007, I was one of the 21,000 college students packed into the Philips Arena in Atlanta, Ga., for Passion, the now infamous mega Christian conference founded by Louie Giglio. It was incredible. I'll never forget the feeling of worshiping God with that many people -- people like me -- who wanted to make a difference.
Years later, I still remember soaking up the messages by Francis Chan, John Piper and Louie Giglio. Giglio's 2005 book, "I Am Not But I Know I Am," had been a favorite among my Bible Study group, one we devoured and dissected eagerly.
Those lingering feelings of fondness for Passion and Giglio are one reason why I'm so saddened by recent events surrounding his invitation to, and withdrawal from, the 2013 inaugural prayer. When I first heard he was doing the prayer, I was thrilled. Happy that he had been invited by a president I support, and that he agreed, even though doing so would undoubtedly cause criticism from conservative Christians. But then I read the New York Times article quoting a 1990s sermon where Giglio called on fellow Christians to, "fight the 'aggressive agenda' of the gay rights movement and advocated the 'healing power of Jesus' as 'the only way out of a homosexual lifestyle.'"
Like many Christians who support their gay and lesbian friends, I'd hoped Giglio would release a statement apologizing for his prior remarks. One that offered some kind of clarification or admission of growth. A statement that clearly said he did not then, nor now, wish to alienate the gay community.
But he didn't.
Instead, he released this:
"Due to a message of mine that has surfaced from 15-20 years ago, it is likely that my participation, and the prayer I would offer, will be dwarfed by those seeking to make their agenda the focal point of the inauguration. Clearly, speaking on this issue has not been in the range of my priorities in the past fifteen years. Instead, my aim has been to call people to ultimate significance as we make much of Jesus Christ.
Neither I, nor our team, feel it best serves the core message and goals we are seeking to accomplish to be in a fight on an issue not of our choosing, thus I respectfully withdraw my acceptance of the President's invitation. I will continue to pray regularly for the President, and urge the nation to do so. I will most certainly pray for him on Inauguration Day." [edited for length]
Giglio, upon hearing that his old sermon was dug up -- a sermon he very well might not have remembered having given -- had an opportunity: He could have apologized. He could have said that, like most Christians, he has been changed by his friendships and relationships with gay friends and family, and his beliefs and attitudes have evolved. He could have even used this opportunity to shed some light on the conversation that needs to be happening if a bridge between these two communities is ever going to be built. But he didn't. He once again blamed someone else's agenda. Let out a less than graceful response. Then fled.
To his church, he expounded on the statement he gave to the president, saying this:
The issue of homosexuality (which a particular message of mine some 20 years ago addressed) is one of the most difficult our nation will navigate. However, individuals' rights of freedom, and the collective right to hold differing views on any subject is a critical balance we, as a people, must recover and preserve.
As a pastor, my mission is to love people, and lead them well, while lifting up the name of Jesus above anything else. I'm confident that anyone who knows me or has listened to the multitude of messages I have given in the last decade would most likely conclude that I am not easily characterized as being opposed to people -- any people. Rather, I am constantly seeking to understand where all people are coming from and how to best serve them as I point them to Jesus.
In all things, the most helpful thing I can do is to invite each of us to wrestle with scripture and its implications for our lives. God's words trump all opinions, including mine, and in the end, I believe God's words lead to life.
My greatest desire is that we not be distracted from the things we are focused on ... seeing people in our city come to know Jesus, and speaking up for the last and least of these throughout the world.
Again, he missed an opportunity. Here's the thing -- to Louie, and many of his followers, the most important pressing issue of the day is ending modern day slavery. That is an incredible, worthy, God-honoring goal. I am so thankful that God touched Louie's, and so many others, heart on that matter and that they're doing something about this horrific problem. But there is not a hierarchy on sin, or pain, or "wrongness." Just because a man does amazing work in one area, doesn't mean he can't have fault in another. Just because Giglio honors God with his ministry doesn't mean he didn't miss a huge opportunity to repent of a past sermon that was filled with language not honoring to the millions of Americans who are gay, and have been hurt by the church.
Just because he does incredible work to end slavery, doesn't mean we can't be upset with his remarks to the gay community.
These events surrounding Giglio's invitation, outing and withdrawal illustrate the significant problem that still exists between the gay and Christian community. To say we don't exactly get along is putting it mildly. To say we're suspicious, resentful and wary of one another is more accurate.
The moment that Giglio was announced as the speaker, people on one side started looking for dark spots in his past. They scoured and searched and dug up a sermon nearly two decades old. Fueled with that fire, they marked Giglio an enemy and set out to have him tarnished and removed from this position of honor.
The moment that Giglio was found out, instead of being apologetic, graceful or even accepting some fault, he attacked in return. He showed himself to be deserving of the suspicion that the other side had from the moment his name was mentioned. He could have made the people who sought to ruin him look petty, by releasing a statement showing that, of course, he does not believe the same things he did 20 years ago. Instead, by not distancing himself from his past remarks, he validated the very agenda he decried.
Louie was right: People with an agenda found him out. But is an agenda wrong? Louie has one for ending slavery. The people who found his sermon have one for ending religious persecution of the gay community. Is only one right?
One thing is clear: If there was any beginning to the bridge covering the chasm between the gay and Christian community, it's in perilous danger now. Because in this case, both sides held matches to the ropes on their own end, and watched it burn.
As someone desperately trying to put out that fire, I'm frustrated and saddened. Truthfully, I'm mostly upset with the Christians, since the onus of forgiveness, grace and love is on them. Not on the gay community who they've repeatedly hurt and attacked for decades. I'm upset with my Christian friends who have said that Giglio's good deeds mean more than anything he might have said 10 years ago. As if being a mega pastor excuses you from language that tears people down.
According to his own words, Giglio is on a mission to call all people to the ultimate significance of Jesus Christ. I share that same mission.
Where he and I seem to differ, is in the definition of "all."