Early in my pastoral career, I had a transforming experience which taught me so much about both ministry and the good news of Jesus Christ. Not long after being called to a congregation, I was told the grandson of one of the church’s members had died of suicide. The grandmother was not a frequent attender of church services, and I had not yet met her.
When I arrived at her house, I heard her sobbing uncontrollably. I came into the room and knelt by her chair and, taking her hand, I introduced myself and told her how sorry I was about her loss. Between sobs, she asked me if her beloved grandson was now in hell. I assumed that she had heard that suicide was an “unforgivable sin” since it was impossible to ask for forgiveness after killing oneself. I also remembered the sage advice from my pastoral care training that the most appropriate time to “teach theology” is not in the midst of a crisis The best approach is to be with the person in their pain knowing that one’s mere presence can be helpful. But this woman wanted answers. She asked again with unmistakable emphasis, “IS MY GRANDSON IN HELL?” I told her that I believed God met people on the other side of death who died by suicide with love–that God understood that sometimes people find life so painful that they see suicide as the only way out. Out of compassion, God loves them and is committed to their healing and wholeness.
The woman said suicide was not what she was referring to. She then said through her tears, “My grandson was a homosexual.” All her life she had heard that homosexuals could not be saved and were destined for hell unless they repented and allowed God to change them. She had heard such a message from preachers, tv evangelists, friends, and other Christians. And it broke her heart to think that the grandson she so loved was burning in hell because he was gay. I asked her to tell me something about her grandson, and she replied through her tears, that he was the most loving, compassionate, kind, and caring person she had ever known. He was the light of her life, but she had worried so much about his eternal destiny because he was gay.
So, she asked me again, “Do you think he’s now in hell? I’ve heard that if a homosexual asks God for forgiveness and repents, God will change him. My grandson didn’t want to be the way he was. Why didn’t God fix him?” I realized that she did not want me to talk about what the Bible said or what the church believed. She was asking me as a pastor and Christian what I believed. None of my pastoral care training had prepared me for such a moment. I decided to throw caution to the wind and said, “I will tell you what I believe as long as you assure me that you trust I am telling you the truth as I see it.” She nodded her head affirming that trust on her part.
This is what I said: “God did not to fix your grandson because your grandson didn’t need fixing. He was a part of God’s beautiful creation. He was not broken. Those who condemned him are broken. They are the ones who need to be fixed.” I went on to explain that the great preponderance of evidence was that homosexuals cannot change. Their sexuality is a part of who they are as children of God.
I could detect the shock among others in that room. Their silence was deafening. That wasn’t what they expected to hear from a minister. The grandmother looked at me with a glimmer of hope, but I could tell that she was still in turmoil. So, I asked her to tell me again about her grandson, and she repeated the same wonderful characteristics she had mentioned before: compassionate, loving, kind, caring. I said, “You really loved him,” to which she replied with intensity, “Of course, I loved him!” I asked if she believed God loved her. She answered in the affirmative. I asked if God’s love was greater than her love. She nodded yes. I then asked if she could ever consign her beloved grandson to everlasting torment in hell. “Of course not!” she answered. So I asked, “Then how could God do so if God’s love for you and your grandson exceeds your own? Could you ever be happy in time or eternity knowing that your beloved grandson is suffering the agonies of hell with no hope of deliverance? How could a loving God condemn anyone to perpetual misery for being who he was created to be?”
“But what about all that the churches and ministers say about homosexuals going to hell? They quote Scripture.” I asked her if she ever played cards. She nodded yes but was puzzled at the question in that context. “So, you know about the ‘trump card’ which is more powerful than any other card in the deck. In the ‘game of life’ love is the card God plays which cancels the power of any other card. The Bible says, ‘God is love.’ Love is God’s essence. When anything is said or done which limits God’s love, love always wins. The Bible says lots of things, and they are not always compatible. As Christians, the greatest revelation of God is seen in Jesus who taught us that above all else God is love. I trust that love for myself, you, your grandson, and everyone else. I hope you can come to trust that same love for this beloved child of God who is now in the arms of one who loves unconditionally and eternally.”
Two weeks after this encounter, the grandmother was in church. From that Sunday on, she never missed unless she was ill or out of town. In fact, she would call me to report when she would not be in church. She had heard the good news of Jesus Christ for her and her grandson. May God forgive those who out of fear and ignorance have turned good news into despicable bad news. LGBTQ persons do not need to be fixed. The only ones who need to be fixed are those who do not yet understand God’s unconditional, indiscriminate, self-giving, everlasting love.
[This article reports a real event in my life as a minister. I have reported the gist of what happened that day. The conversation is not given word for word. The sobbing of the grandmother interrupted the flow of our dialogue, and I was not as articulate that day as I am in my memory of what happened. But overall, this is a true account of what was one of the most impacting pastoral events I ever experienced.
According to Jesus, compassion is the most important characteristic of God we are to emulate in our discipleship. The Hebrew word for compassion goes back to the word for the “womb” of a mother. Compassion is “mother love.” When I despair of this world and its evil and suffering, I remember the love of that grandmother for her beautiful and caring grandson. She has become an icon/a sacrament for me of God’s relentless love which can never abandon any of us. Love is God’s trump card to all the evil, foolishness, and despair of humanity. And love wins!]