Somebody asked me on Twitter today why I was part of Outlaw Preachers since we all seemed like a bunch of argumentative jerks. I wrote this partly in response to him, but really because I needed to say it to all of you, and to myself. I’ll post it on Facebook and Tumblr?
Some of you know my story, how I grew up in and struggled with conservative charismatic evangelicalism. I won’t rehash it here, because it’s an old story with beats that will be familiar to many. Suffice it to say that I tried to leave my faith once, returned to it with a vengeance for a few years, and ultimately found the cognitive dissonance required for orthodoxy to be more than I could bear. As many of the disaffected children of evangelicalism do, I ultimately found myself identifying as an emergent Christian. For many of us, the Emergent Church is a way to retain our Christianity. For others, it’s a conduit out.
When I first found the EC, it seemed like someone had thrown me a lifeline. Finally, here was a way to believe without sacrificing my intellect, or feminism, or progressivism. Here was a group of (relative) liberals who understood the theology and vocabulary of evangelicalism and the neuroses it engendered (one reason I found it difficult to be comfortable in the progressive mainline church). Here was a way to be true to the revelation of God’s creation and the world at large while remaining in the nurturing bosom of the community I was raised in. Of course time, human nature, and cold reality will take the bloom off any rose, and now, several years later, having further divested myself of my childhood beliefs and comforting fictions, I began to wonder if the EC was not the lifeboat, but rather the current pushing me further out to sea.
I think I could be fairly described as a whirlwind of waxing and waning attention and enthusiasm, and I often am enticed and excited by something only to watch my energy dissipate before I can act on it. My faith, I suppose, is the same- even in my quasi- or un- belief I often follow the old time religious rhythms of mountaintop-camp meeting-revival high and valley of despair low. Last winter, I learned of a conference (Transform) that sounded interesting and made plans to go, only to find my interest waning by the time it rolled around. Transform is described as a missional church planting network, and I a) am extremely averse to the term “church planting” (those damn Acts 29ers*) and b) think missional is a nice buzzword, but not much else. Despite some reservations, I decided to go on the basis that there would be some good speakers, it would be a good reason to visit my hometown, and that Steve Knight (the founder of Transform) was a good guy.
I ended up really enjoying Transform. I had a good time with my ATL traveling companions, heard several great speakers who reminded me why I still believe or want to believe in God (hint: it has to do with Love), and had two curious encounters. The first was with a group called the Outlaw Preachers. I had vaguely heard the name before and had the general impression based on the name that it was a bunch of old dudes trying to be cool, kind of like Rick Warren with his goatee and Hawaiian shirts. I heard a bunch of these guys were throwing a party at their motel and decided to attend, attracted by the promise of pizza and a mysterious homemade hooch (which turned out to be a mixture of Mountain Dew, lemons, and anti-freeze). After this further interaction I determined that the outlaw preachers were NOT in fact aging hippies trying to recapture their youth but rather tattooed young folk who thought they were too cool for the rest of us. At any rate, I would have written these “Outlaw Preachers” off were it not for the second curious encounter.
During one of the sessions, I tweeted the following: “Sometimes I feel like breaking up with Jesus, but then I have a weekend like this, and I remember why we’re still together.” I got a couple retweets, one of them from a gregarious fellow named Phil Shepherd. I later found out he was especially chatty because he was high off his ass on (legitimately prescribed) painkillers, but that’s neither here nor there. Phil really liked my tweet, and came up and introduced himself to me and said he thought I seemed like a cool person. We chatted for a bit, he told me about his church in Texas, and exchanged contact info. Phil was one of these so-called “Outlaw Preachers,” which he explained to me was a twitter hashtag and the community that had grown up around it. I started to listen to some of Phil’s podcasts, including some of his “Sophia series,” interviews with women who inspired him and who were making a difference in the world around them. I thought that there might be something to these Outlaw Preachers it if such a great guy was part of it. A few months later, an “Outlaw Preachers Reunion 2010” was announced, and I thought I might want to attend. I liked that it was cheap, and that the ethic was very DIY- come as you are, contribute if you want, hang out and have fun. They didn’t seem set on having a lot of big name speakers, and the ones that were- Jay Bakker and a teleconferenced Brian McLaren- seemed like they were in it for the fellowship and not the chance to market themselves.** Overall, there was a loose, shaggy feel to the undertaking, and that was something I appreciated. I signed up and told Phil I looked forward to meeting him again there.
I started to follow the #outlawpreachers hashtag a bit more closely, engaging on only a few occasions. At one point, some twitter wars broke out between several people, which I will not elaborate on other than to say that the internet makes us ALL crazy, but I tweeted a rant to the hashtag about how we should not argue on twitter, which was ironic because I argue on twitter ALL THE TIME, which is why I gave it up for Lent. A few people responded to me with a “right on,” and a few others (from what I gathered reading between the lines) were rightfully wondering who the fuck I was and why the fuck I was telling them what to do. I was contacted by this guy named Brandon, an asshole I remembered from Transform.*** Brandon and I ended up having a great conversation about the limits of twitter and online communication in general, and how easy it is to misunderstand and hurt one another when we are just tiny faces in a profile pic. We told each other we looked forward to meeting at OP10 . I tell this story not to dredge up or make light of past hurts, but to explain why I ended up coming to OP10 in the end- I would have felt stupid not coming after all that.
And the fact is, I started to have second thoughts about going. My wintertime depression was kicking in and yet again, I was wondering “why is it again I’m still hanging on to this Christianity thing?” I began to wonder if my faith was not unlike that of many of the families I see in the ICU. They watch their loved one as his or her body is sustained by machines and drugs, desperately scanning the eyes for any small flicker of light, anything that would assure them that someone is still there. They do this because they can’t bear the reality that the flame is rapidly fading and may already be extinguished. Perhaps I was the one who couldn’t bear to face reality. I couldn’t remember what it was exactly I ever thought I would get out of the weekend.
And so I came to OP10 with a bitter, cynical, and wary heart, half hoping I might find something to grab onto and half hoping I could finally fling my belief away for good. And this is when I had my third curious encounter. I’m not sure when, or how, it happened, but I got to know you all. Despite resolving to hang back and keep above the fray, I started to let you all in. Okay, well alcohol probably had something to do with it. But I listened to your stories, and realized that you weren’t losers trying to be cool or cool people trying to be cooler, or anything but people who have suffered, and felt cast off or alienated, and are trying to form a family. People like me who are a little tentative and scared, and who cover their scars with a thick layer of sarcasm and affect. People who might be a little messy or emotional at times. Here we were, people who could say there was no Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, gay nor straight, agnostic nor believer, heretic nor fundamentalist- not because we had left our identities behind us, but because we refused to let them bind us. And in that sacred space and time, I remembered why it was I was there.
Because when I read this, from 1 Corinthians 12, I cry:
Just as a body, though one, has many parts, but all its many parts form one body, so it is with Christ. For we were all baptized by one Spirit so as to form one body—whether Jews or Gentiles, slave or free—and we were all given the one Spirit to drink. Even so the body is not made up of one part but of many.
Now if the foot should say, “Because I am not a hand, I do not belong to the body,” it would not for that reason stop being part of the body. And if the ear should say, “Because I am not an eye, I do not belong to the body,” it would not for that reason stop being part of the body. If the whole body were an eye, where would the sense of hearing be? If the whole body were an ear, where would the sense of smell be? But in fact God has placed the parts in the body, every one of them, just as he wanted them to be. If they were all one part, where would the body be? As it is, there are many parts, but one body.
The eye cannot say to the hand, “I don’t need you!” And the head cannot say to the feet, “I don’t need you!” On the contrary, those parts of the body that seem to be weaker are indispensable, and the parts that we think are less honorable we treat with special honor. And the parts that are unpresentable are treated with special modesty, while our presentable parts need no special treatment. But God has put the body together, giving greater honor to the parts that lacked it, so that there should be no division in the body, but that its parts should have equal concern for each other. If one part suffers, every part suffers with it; if one part is honored, every part rejoices with it.
Or the next chapter, 1 Corinthians 13, or Romans 12. I was there because there is in the Christian story a beautiful vision of love, of the Kingdom of Heaven within us and among us. I want to believe that in the various mingled facts and fictions of the Bible, that this is one true thing I can hold on to. What I saw this weekend was people who also want to believe that.
I’m not naïve. I’ve been a part of a lot of “families” and relationships that have fallen apart, and a few that have stuck together. I know that it takes hard work, that there is friction, and weather, and entropy, and all the forces of nature to contend with. I don’t know that just because we had this amazing experience in Memphis that it will necessarily carry us to the next year or the year after that. It may be that Robert Frost is right when he says that nothing gold can stay, and that’s it’s foolish to ruin the beauty of a fleeting moment by trying to extend it to the next. But I want to believe that it’s possible, and I want to try with you all.
Thank you for letting me be a part of this. Thank you for sharing your lives and your gifts. Thank you for blessing me with your wit, grace, beauty, and talent. At this point, I’m typing this through my tears at 2:30 in the morning, and I know I need to hurry up an post it before I think better of wearing my emotions on my sleeve like this. May God bless you and keep until we meet again.
*Acts 29 is a pyramid scheme/cult which recruits idealistic young Christians concerned about the plight of the “unsaved.” They convince these poor folk that they will “save souls” by “planting churches” that they will fund by sacrificing every shred of dignity they have to beg for money. You will be approached by these adorable seeming folk, often in newly married pairs, who will ask you to “partner” in “ministry” with them, which is code for “fork over the dough.” They have been trained in high-pressure sales tactics and will not give up until they have money in hand. They will then, knowing you want to get them off your case, manage to finagle the names and phone numbers of your friends, family, coworkers, hairdressers, dentists, mechanics, and so forth. You will lose some relationships over this as people will be very angry with you. Once the 29er has enough money, they will move to another city (they can never stay in their own city) and proceed to attract “converts” with church-set coffee shops and rockin’ worship bands. Also cool AV equipment. All this effort will result not in converting any actual unbelievers but rather in poaching Christians from churches that only have drip coffee pots and worship leaders who are not as hot. While this is not a pyramid scheme in the classical Ponzi sense, as I do not believe any Christians are actually making money off of it, I am pretty sure the makers of mid-range commercial espresso machines, Taylor guitars, Zildjan drums, and American Crew hair gel are laughing all the way to the bank. OK, sorry, this is a long footnote.
** A third “name,” Pete Rollins, was originally announced, and while Pete is a cool, down to earth guy and a great speaker, he tends to inspire a gawd-awful lot of pseudo-intellectual wanking amongst his fanboys, and for that reason I’m sort of glad he wasn’t there.
***Brandon is not really an asshole, but I thought he was at the time.