We were minutes from pulling away from the gate at LAX, and the seat next to me was empty. An empty seat next to an introvert like myself is more than an answer to prayer, especially on the long flight from Los Angeles to Memphis. But wouldn’t you know it at literally the last minute, he came running in. Sweat was pouring down his face as if he had sprinted from his house in the valley all the way to Inglewood on the 405. After shaking my disappointment filled hand, he announced that he was a full time stay at home dad, married to another man and the proud father of four children that he and his partner had adopted. Sprinkled in for good measure were a few f bombs, and of course some moments later he asked me, a pastor, what I did for a living? The next three hours and twenty minutes were going to be interesting.

He grew up in Memphis and was returning to look after his brother who happens to be gay as well, and had gotten into some recent financial trouble. I couldn’t resist. I asked Tom (a made up name) what it was like to be gay growing up in a deep south town like Memphis, where that lifestyle is still frowned upon by the Memphian? I found his story to be a fascinating one- a tale filled with rejection by the evangelical church, dismissal from a parachurch ministry and even shunned by his own parents. He literally had to flee to southern California to feel as if he could be himself.

My constant questioning of Tom definitely caught him off guard. I think he was readying himself for me to toss a few Leviticus 18 and Romans 1 grenades his way. Instead what he got was what society would label as a conservative pastor from Memphis sincerely interested in his life and journey. I just couldn’t stop. I wanted to learn more. What was his husband like? Where did they adopt the kids from? Do they get picked on for having two dads? Did he think any of them would embrace his same lifestyle?

And I also wanted to know what he thought about Louie Giglio being pressured by his community to not pray? Now he was frustrated with me. “Do you think the liberal left speaks for me?” Then slowly for emphasis, “They. Do. Not.” After adding that the legalistic right didn’t speak for him either, he shocked me by saying that Pastor Giglio, in his opinion, should have prayed. Tom exhaled, “And who does the gay community think they are by demanding that everyone agree with them?” I sat there in silence, my assumptions dismantled.

As the plane prepared to touch down he asked me for my contact info. Tom wanted to stay in touch. His brother attends church regularly, but doesn’t feel comfortable with his latest stop. “Maybe your church will be the place for him,” Tom said, as he pulled out his business card and scribbled his cell number across it.

I couldn’t stop thinking about Tom as I lay in bed that night. In my younger days Tom wouldn’t have been Tom, an actual person. He would have been a label. Gay guy. The problem. Enemy. And where I come from, some hateful terms would have come to mind, if not have rolled off my lips. As I thought of Tom I saw a person, a story. I felt his sense of displacement. I tried to put myself in his shoes- a thirteen year old boy who just felt naturally attracted to other boys, standing in the locker room knowing he could never let on. I tried to feel his sexual disequilibrium as he walked through the halls of Rhodes College as a student in the early 1980s, telling himself no one better know the real him or he would lose his scholarship (or so he thought). Tom was not a label to me, he was a real person, made in the image of God. He was not an issue to be debated, but a person to be loved.

Moments from sleep that night, I saw the seat next to me on the plane that for so long sat empty, vacant. Just like that it was filled with a person I couldn’t avoid, a person I had to address, a person who became a part of my life. Sadly, many in the Christian community would love it if the seats around us were vacant. We don’t want to have to deal with the gay community, the Tom’s of our world. We wish they would stay in their midtown’s, on their side of the tracks, so we won’t have to think about them, hiding behind our pulpits and lobbing Leviticus 18 and Romans 1 grenades at them from a safe distance.

This isn’t our future though. I’m days away from turning forty, and if the Lord lets me live to life expectancy, I believe that in my lifetime gay marriage will be sanctioned across all fifty states. Their voice will become louder. Tom will move in next door to us. His kids will go to our schools, and play in our athletic leagues. We better have something more to say than, “Love the sinner, hate the sin.”

I get the feeling that right now you maybe a little unsettled with this blog. You want some apologetic from me on how wrong “they” are, and how right “we” are. You want me to state the truth about the issue in words that have an edge to them. But this isn’t what Jesus gives us. Even though homosexuality was prevalent in the Roman empire, Jesus never spoke of it. No his silence isn’t passive approval, but instead of dealing with the issue, he focuses on the Christians response. In John 13 he says that the badge of the disciple is our love for others. When backed into a corner and asked what the greatest commandment was, Jesus gave a two part response- love for God and love for neighbor. Then to illustrate who he meant by neighbor he talked about a person that the Jews went out of their way to avoid- a Samaritan. Their version of Tom.

Tom doesn’t need our worn out cliché’s. Tom needs the truth of the gospel message packaged in the unwavering love of the messenger. Tom needs to be invited into our homes, with his husband and kids, where a great steak, some good wine is waiting on him, prepared by people who love him enough to point him to the one who gave his life for him. The gospel is never about changing homosexuals into heterosexuals, but transforming sinners into Christ followers.