For most of my life I’ve felt like I was someone on the outside looking in. When I was going through my paradigm shift at seminary, I’d often walk down to the beach a few blocks from our home to clear my head. One day I saw a person kayaking alone on the horizon, and as I peered through the viewfinder of my camera to capture the above image, I was reminded that this lonely kayak reminded me a lot of my own spiritual journey.
If someone were to ask me what my spiritual journey feels like, I’d just show them this picture– because the picture says it best.
Me, myself, and I trying to figure out where this shifting current is heading and which bank I should paddle towards.
During this journey vocal tribal members would often yell out from their island, beckoning me to come to their shore because their tribe had the best way to understand God. Yet, most of my visits to those islands left me unsatisfied in my quest, and too often I departed far more wounded than when I arrived at that particular tribe.
As much as I’ve hated it, I’ve always been a Christian outsider. At home no where, and out of place everywhere.
When I think back to my most conservative days, I realize that even when knee deep in the culture I was still internally an outsider– my heart knew that the culture was harsh and unloving– and I was just never able to settle in. My trip to the Island of St. Calvin lasted just a weekend, but was the longest month of my life. The land of mainstream Evangelicalism wasn’t all that bad and the core theology seemed to make sense, but the tribe had blended theology and American culture together to such a degree that it often felt like an entirely new religion. Conversely, while the island of Progressive Christianity is big and wide, it creates a few problems of its own– few people are alike, when they are similar cliques abound, and some parts of the island seem to cross out of Christianity entirely. One can end up feeling every bit as alone as when you’re drifting out to sea.
Yet, I am discovering a beautiful side to being a Christian outsider: it better prepares us to discover the heart of Jesus.
You see, Jesus was an outsider by his own right. In his very first public sermon he declared that a “preacher can find love everywhere but in his own tribe” (my obvious paraphrase of this passage), a sermon that resulted in an assassination attempt by his own community. He was Jewish, yet reserved almost all of his criticism and fighting words for the Jewish leaders. He rejected the rules of the empire and taught his followers to oppose it in radically subversive ways. He refused to observe oral traditions that everyone else seemed to observe, he made his friends among the “unclean” people of society, and staged a public protest in the temple in defense of the exploitation of outsiders– an act of civil disobedience that actually cost him his life.
In fact when you read his most famous sermon, The Sermon on the Mount, he goes through a pattern of “Blessed are the _______”
Every word Jesus fills in the blank with? They’re all descriptors of outsiders. The very people folks assumed would be guaranteed to be “in” are conspicuously missing from the equation. Meanwhile Jesus declares that the outcast, the set aside, the not included, the “without a tribe” and those who do things backwards, are actually the very people who will find this “Kingdom” he talked so much about.
I believe that Jesus came for everybody, but that not everybody embraces what he has to offer when they find him.
The folks who do embrace him? Well, they’re people like me… and you. The outsiders were always the ones who embraced Jesus.
This is the unexpected benefit of being a Christian outsider: our hearts are more ripe and free from the distractions that keep us from embracing Jesus. In fact, in many respects the longing to quench the loneliness of outsiderness actually drives us to him. It certainly does for me.
Already relegated to the margins means we have few other distractions, few other barriers… we’re just people who know we can’t get our you-know-what together and find the message of Jesus compelling and full of grace. As a result, we develop a never-ending curiosity about this day laborer from Galilee, and find ourselves paddling toward whichever island we see this man of grace and love walking on.
Yes, being a Christian outsider is lonely– even when you’re a high-profile outsider. However, I am discovering that being without a tribe often frees me and pushes me to never stop chasing this man I find in the New Testament… the man with a message so compelling that nothing else in all of human history compares to it.
Today I take great comfort that Jesus came not for the people with their feet planted firmly on the shore, but for people like me who are often set adrift in the vast oceans of life– and who have no island of their own to drift towards.
If you’re feeling like a “Christian outsider”, feeling like you’re left without a tribe and aren’t sure where to go… let me just encourage you that this may in fact be the perfect place to discover the true heart of Jesus of Nazareth– because he was an outsider who came for other outsiders.
People like us.