After listening patiently to Sarah, I said, “I know it feels as if someone has put a blanket over your soul and God has turned his back on you. I’ve had times like that myself. But,” I assured her, “God has not gone anywhere. He is with you. You will get through this, but you might need others to believe for you when you don’t have the strength on your own.”

She gave a slight nod, but her expression said, Yeah, yeah. I hear what you’re saying, but it’s just not working for me.

“Come with me for a minute,” I said. “I want you to meet someone.”

I introduced Sarah to a woman who I knew would understand; someone who had been to the depths and back, someone with whom she could open up without fear of rejection or judgment. Over time, Sarah was invited to a community group of people her own age. She established some good friendships with people who loved her, prayed with her, and studied the Scriptures with her, even though she often wasn’t much fun to be around.

A few weeks ago, when Sarah came forward for Communion, there was something different about her. She was smiling. The circumstances of her life hadn’t changed a whole lot, but the thorns of her depression had not kept a group of ordinary Christians from loving her. As they engaged with Sarah in the briarpatch, Jesus had met them there. And the touch of his Spirit was evident.

Invitations into the briarpatch happen in all different ways and come in all shapes and sizes.

I met Charlie a few months ago, when he came to All Souls for the first time. I happened to walk past him just after the service ended, so I stopped and said hello. The fear that shot through his body when the preacher stopped to talk to him was almost visible. He seemed certain that the inquisition was about to begin.

Within five minutes, I learned that he had believed in Jesus longer than I had and was new to town. He didn’t know anyone and was nervous about his new job. He also fully expected that we would not want him in our church. It took a great deal of courage for him to let down his guard, especially so quickly. But that’s just what he did.

“See, Pastor, I’m one of those boys who likes to kiss other boys.”

I tried to hold it together, but I just couldn’t. “Wow!” I said as I began to laugh. “Is that how you tell people you’re gay? I’ve heard it said a lot of ways, but that’s a new one!”

He squirmed and let out a nervous laugh, and I could tell he was just waiting for me to ask some uncomfortable questions—was he celibate? did he have a boyfriend? had he read Leviticus?—and then explain why he wouldn’t be welcome at our church unless he changed his ways. It was pretty clear he expected judgment and rejection.

Instead, I looked him in the eye and said, “If you are a follower of Christ, you’re my brother, and you’re welcome here either way. I’m guessing I don’t need to tell you what the Bible says about homosexuality because you probably know better than I do. But your being gay doesn’t put you into some special category of sinner. It just means you struggle to follow Jesus, just like I do. You and I both are called to conform our lives to the righteousness of Christ, and you and I are both going to fail miserably at times. But I am willing to walk down that road with you for as long as it takes. And I want you to walk down my roads with me. As Christians, we are called to enter together into the mess and the mystery of following Jesus.”

He was speechless. It may have been my cologne.

Finally, he muttered, “Okay.”

“I need coffee,” I said, pointing toward our lobby. “Want some?”

I don’t pretend to understand what it’s like to be a gay Christian.[1] But it’s not necessary for me to understand in order to give my friendship to Charlie, any more than he needs to know my sins and doubts before deciding to be my friend. We don’t have to have all the answers. We don’t even have to agree on the questions. Following Jesus means only that we have the courage to love as he did, even when we don’t understand.