Hold Fast to What is Good
“Be at peace among yourselves. And we urge you, brothers and sisters, to admonish the idlers, encourage the fainthearted, help the weak, be patient with all of them. See that none of you repays evil for evil, but always seek to do good to one another and to all. Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances, for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you. Do not quench the Spirit. Do not despise prophecies, but test everything; hold fast to what is good; abstain from every form of evil.
May the God of peace himself sanctify you entirely, and may your spirit and soul and body be kept sound and blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ. The one who calls you is faithful, and he will do this.”
–I Thessalonians 5:13b-25
“Hold fast to what is good,” wrote the Apostle Paul in his letter to the Thessalonians. This past Sunday, I shared some of my story of my time in the Baptist church, and the sense of both grief and grace that I carry with me. Here’s some of what I shared:
“I loved my church. I loved worship and bible study and fellowship; I was there three times a week most weeks—Sunday morning worship, Sunday evening worship, and Wednesday college group. It was there that I really fell in love with Jesus—I had a personal encounter with him that left me changed. And I wanted to know him more. It was there that I began to sense a call to ministry, and where I walked the aisle during the hymn of invitation to “surrender to the ministry” on May 4, 1997. It was there that I learned the power and the depth of scripture to speak to me, and where I came to love so many of the old hymns that still remain special to me. It was there that I sung in a choir for the first time and went on mission trips and saw the church at work in the world, doing good and helping others.
But it was while I was a member there that I also began to know myself more fully, and where I ultimately was able to acknowledge my identity as a gay man. I knew that that truth was in conflict with what the church taught and believed, and I struggled with how to reconcile those competing realities for years. After a long and hard fought struggle, I was able to begin to come out in stages and acknowledge my truth—and the truth that I was still called by God into ministry, that I still was in love with Jesus, that I was and am beloved. It was a kind of healing, as if I could see clearly for the first time. But others didn’t see it that way. I was told by one minister at that church that I was “deceived by Satan,” blinded as it were. Fear and refusal to see the works of God. The place I had loved so much was no longer a place I could call home. I’m grateful for being able to find my way back to the United Church of Christ—but the grief will always be real.
In the Baptist tradition that I came to know so well, at the conclusion of every sermon, the pastor always extended an invitation—to come forward and receive Jesus as savior, or join the church, or acknowledge a call to ministry. We always sang a hymn of invitation at that point, and one of those in particular will always be special to me: “turn your eyes upon Jesus, look full in his wonderful face; and the things of earth will grow strangely dim, in the light of his glory and grace.” We’re going to sing that hymn in a little while. And I want to testify right here and right now, that no matter where you have been on your journey, no matter what you may have been told, who you love, who you are, what you believe—you are loved. Jesus is standing with open arms ready to welcome you, to remind you that you belong. It doesn’t matter what others say—just look at Jesus. Just look at him. He will give you the vision, the ability to see the love that fills the cosmos, and is written into your life and on your soul. The image of God that you and all creation bears. Turn your eyes upon Jesus. And the things of earth will grow dim in his light, his love, his grace.”
It can be difficult, when we experience grief, exclusion, or hurt, to know how to “hold fast to what is good,” as Paul said. For me, holding on to that hymn, and all those things that spoke to me and encouraged me and nurtured me, has been a lifeline that has kept me tethered to the love of Jesus, even when others may have told me that I didn’t belong or didn’t deserve them. I don’t know what those things might be for you, but on this day, I’m praying that you will be filled with God’s Spirit and be strengthened to hold fast to what is good. May you know once again that God loves you, and no one and no thing can ever take that away from you. Thanks be to God.