Surprised by mercy: my train-wreck conversion story

Surprised by mercy: my train-wreck conversion story February 11, 2013

I was invited to share an occasion when I was surprised by mercy. It was August 2002. I had just rushed my ex-girlfriend to the emergency room because she slit her wrists in a bathtub. I was a severely depressed, chain-smoking mess. And I discovered the gospel of mercy that I proclaim today when I opened Henri Nouwen’s book Life of the Beloved in a small group gathering where everyone other than me was a lesbian. I only remember Tanya and Pat by name, but if that group of lesbians had not been spiritual mothers who embraced and nurtured me in a time of crisis, I would not be a pastor today. I realize that talking about this will probably cause my Board of Ordained Ministry to have some questions for me, but God has commanded me to testify about the train wreck experience by which I discovered the true gospel. Because it was only in the fellowship of the despised that I could learn mercy the way God wanted me to understand it.

Growing up a moderate Southern Baptist, my assumption all the way through college was that Christianity had a one-dimensional scale. You either really really believed in it like the fundamentalists or you kind of sort of didn’t believe exactly all of it like the moderates (because there’s no such thing as a liberal Baptist). I believed in evolution because I’m an endocrinologist’s son, and it cost me a spot in the leadership of a campus fellowship group. A huge torpedo to fundamentalism’s credibility struck when one of my college roommates literally went crazy after reading very thick books by Spurgeon, Sproul, and Packer. Watching that happen made it okay for me to admit that there was something seriously wrong with that way of thinking even though I didn’t really have an alternative.

Two years after college, I found myself in Toledo, Ohio, working as the communications director of a farm-worker union, doing a miserable job partly because I was self-medicating my depression by partying late every night in the artists’ colony where I lived that was housed in a former convent (the only entity of its kind I’ve ever seen anywhere). I was living with a girl who painted beautiful pictures and tried to kill herself multiple times because of some horrific things that happened in her past. I knew that I needed to get back to church and get her into a church because I needed help and I needed her to be safe.

So I went to Central Avenue United Methodist Church, the first Methodist church I had ever been to, because it was walking distance away. And I immediately saw that I was one of maybe half a dozen straight people out of the 40 who were there. The first thing I thought to myself was they sure can’t be fundamentalists if they’re gay. So that was one strike in their favor. The other thing I noticed was that they were all wounded. Or at least there was an acute tenderness and meekness with which they moved and talked. It was a group of people who were discovering how to be loved by God for the first time, and it was the first time I was in a church where I felt completely safe.

They took their spiritual formation very seriously. Many of them had been through the Servant Leadership School curriculum from the Church of the Savior in DC. I decided to join a book study of Henri Nouwen’s Life of the Beloved with them. And that was how I got surprised by mercy. The question the book asked that made me cry was whether I really knew how much God loved me. Nouwen said that if I didn’t love myself, then that was pretty clear evidence that I hadn’t accepted God’s love for me. I thought I was supposed to judge myself ruthlessly (which I still do) in order to prove that I had been sincere when I asked Jesus to be my Lord and Savior.

I knew that it was correct to say that God loved me, and it had been explained to me (poorly and incorrectly) that agape love is a purely rational choice (i.e. not a feeling) that I could make to love people even if I didn’t like them (which also meant that God probably didn’t like me even though He had an obligation to love me as my heavenly Father). For all practical purposes, God’s only role in my life was to convict me in my conscience when I was doing wrong, so I knew God was around if I felt guilty about something. It had never occurred to me that I was doing self-destructive things because I didn’t love myself and didn’t believe that God loved me. I think there’s a lot of wisdom in Greg Boyd’s claim that all sin is based upon having a demonic conception of God. If you see God as a cruel slave-driver, you either feel justified rebelling against Him like I did (Gen 3:4-5, Matthew 25:24) or you use your obedience to a God you need to be harsh as the basis for your self-justification like the prodigal son’s older brother (Luke 15:29).

Nouwen described the problem Jesus’ salvation resolves completely differently than I’d ever heard it before. To him, the problem is that we don’t really know or believe that God loves us, despite what we might say. The love that God has for us is the foundation for our existence and the basis for any good that we accomplish in the world. Sin is whatever we do to ourselves and other people that creates obstacles to full immersion in God’s love. Jesus died for us on the cross so that we would have a place to put these obstacles to death. To Nouwen, the problem the cross solves isn’t God’s infinite perfectionism, but our blindness to His love. Here are some things I wrote in my journal at the time:

This is a real challenge for me — to know that I’m beloved. Truth is I don’t have enough personal relationships to really experience the humanity of God’s touch. I isolate myself from people. I do not value enough the sunbeams that radiate my direction from my mother. Or my aunt or grandfather for that matter. I know my father loves me too. I assume that because their love is unconditional, it’s circumstantial. I’m in their family and that’s my value to them. Even writing that makes me reproach myself for my profound ingratitude…

Being blessed, as Nouwen writes, involves looking for beauty around you. You are training your eye to see the language of God’s goodness on a canvas that might provoke a number of reactions. The important thing I’m learning is that receiving God involves a discipline. Hearing the voice above the noise requires practice and patience. Conversely, feeling cursed and moping around about it is very comfortable in a junk food, couch potato kind of way…

Just got done with my weekly class on Life of the Beloved. I’m trying to learn how to rise up into God’s love for me. It is not a surrender in the sense of throwing yourself down but rather opening your soul to let the light come in. Every “I can” is a leap into God’s love for me. The “I can’ts” are not humble but rather disavowals. So that is the challenge of this quest — to enter enough into the light of God’s presence that I can fill my lungs with his air rather than slouch in the corner with my cigarette.

If I were writing this today, I wouldn’t say “I can” vs. “I can’t,” which isn’t Nouwen’s language either. I would rather say that “leaping into God’s love” is knowing that God can and God loves me, the realization of which is the fear of the Lord and the confidence of the Holy Spirit (Acts 9:31). The false humility of saying “I can’t” is cowering from God in the evil fear of the third servant in the talents parable. What’s remarkable to see is how Nouwen’s ten year old seeds are what flowered this past fall in my writing on the conflation of the two Biblical fears. The gospel of mercy recognizes that the fear of the Lord is wonder and not dread.

The basic distinction I would make between the gospel of mercy I gained and the gospel of judgment I had before is a distinction in what God’s infinite goodness is taken to mean. The gospel of judgment says that God’s goodness has to do with His perfectionist standards for us; the gospel of mercy says that God’s goodness is His perfect benevolence. Now the gospel of mercy is not just touchy-feely unconditional positive regard. For God not to judge sin would be unmerciful to the victims of sin. It’s just that God judges sin out of solidarity with the objects of His mercy against their oppressors, who are the objects of His wrath (Romans 9:22-23).

Every oppressor is also a victim, and our victimhood is impossible to untangle from our oppression, so we need Jesus’ cross to absorb all the blame, resentment, and guilt from our sins and others’ sins against us. The most profound and un-Biblical mistake made by the Four Spiritual Laws that many evangelicals assume to be the gospel is to act as if sin is an entirely abstract offense against God’s rulebook with no social consequences for other people. This is because God is seen as an abstract perfectionist rather than an infinitely passionate defender of His people. The reason God is a jealous God who commands our worship is not because He has a fragile ego, but because every idol that takes His place undermines the peace that our community would have if everyone worshiped Him in spirit and truth.

The Four Spiritual Laws get God’s perfectionism mostly from one grossly overemphasized Biblical chapter: Romans 3. I had always been bothered by the fact that Paul was quoting hyperbolic poetry from the psalms as his proof-text for establishing the profound wickedness of all humanity, but it recently occurred to me to investigate if that’s what he was really doing. The question Paul is answering with the psalms he quotes in Romans 3:11-18 is the one he asks immediately before these verses: “What then? Are we any better off?” (v. 9). He refutes the claim that Jews are better than Gentiles by giving artifacts from Jewish heritage that testify against their faithfulness.

As proof that all humanity is utterly wicked, the hyperbolic psalms are a pretty weak proof-text. But as anecdotal support for Paul’s claim that his fellow Jews aren’t any better than anybody else on account of their law, they serve their purpose. All 1st century Jews believed that Gentiles were utterly wicked; that was the basis for their identity as God’s law-keepers. Paul’s rhetorical objective isn’t to hyperbolize wickedness and attribute to God a nihilistic infinite ethical standard that makes “getting saved” about substituting an earnest sinner’s prayer for a lifetime of flawlessness. Paul is putting his theological opponents in their place by debunking the claim that having the law can make you righteous, accepting their assumption (at least for the purpose of argument!) that all Gentiles are wicked (except for the ones who are a “law unto themselves” [Romans 2:14] or “inward Jews” [Romans 2:29]) in order to make the point that Jews aren’t any better.

There’s no way to determine based on a reading of Romans 3 attentive to which question is being answered by these indicting psalm passages what “grading scale” God will be using for His judgment that causes “anguish and distress for everyone who does evil” and “glory and honor and peace for everyone who does good” (Romans 2:9-10). But I’m growing more and more confident as I study Romans that the nihilistic 100 or 0 grading scale that the half-century old Four Spiritual Laws depend upon has no Biblical basis.

There is so much more Biblical support for a perfectly benevolent God than a nihilistically perfectionist one. In fact, the way that Jesus describes His Father’s perfectionism is in terms of His benevolence towards the just and unjust alike: “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous… Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect” (Matthew 5:44-45, 48).

Jesus asks who among us would give our child a snake if he asks for a fish or a scorpion instead of an egg, saying, “How much more will the heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him!” (Luke 11:12-13). When you read the Bible as an owner’s manual whose purpose is to give us a to-do list instead of a testimony about the good news of God’s love, then that entire passage only serves the purpose of beating us over the head if our prayer life sucks. It never occurs to us to read it as a declaration of God’s benevolence.

I’m not going to marshal out every reference to God’s benevolence in the Bible because this has already gotten too long. What I will say is that people who are despised have a unique capacity to appropriate and share God’s mercy. Reading Henri Nouwen with a group of lesbians helped me discover the passage that summarizes my gospel: “God chose what is low and despised in the world, things that are not, to reduce to nothing things that are” (1 Corinthians 1:28). The word for the despised is exouthenemenos, which is the spiritual name that God has given me.

This has shaped how I understand what Jesus means when He says to deny ourselves and take up our crosses to follow Him (Luke 9:23). He isn’t just saying to put in a certain number of volunteer service hours at church or put up with contentious people patiently or even engage in rigorous fasting and self-flagellation. In the context of the passage, Jesus has just told his disciples that He was going to be publicly rejected and persecuted by the religious authorities. At that point in the story, Jesus was a celebrity faith healer, not an outcast. Taking up your cross would have a very concrete, physical meaning to people who had seen the processions of condemned prisoners with crosses strapped to their back heading out the city gates to be executed. Jesus is saying if you got close to me because I’m popular to increase your own status, think again. The choice He offers is between living within worldly privilege and prestige or eschewing your reputation and even your physical safety in order to really live (v. 25).

With the turmoil of the Sixties and the advent of pop culture, American Christianity has redefined “the world” that Jesus calls us to leave behind. We’ve made “the world” we’re supposed to oppose into the life of the city and the television set so that “taking up your cross” becomes a defense of the social mores of suburbia, some of which are Biblical though their overemphasis is not. For most of Christian history, taking up your cross meant abandoning your privilege, like what St. Francis of Assisi did to his merchant father, stripping naked in public to completely repudiate his worldly status and his father’s control over him so he could give himself to Jesus. Now we are in the ridiculous situation where people who live in $700,000 homes say that they’re being persecuted because their health insurance company pays for other peoples’ birth control.

To take up your cross and follow Jesus means to become exouthenemenos by joining those whose existence is cursed. It means that you throw your worldly reputation to the wind and refuse to be ashamed (v. 26) of the savior who drank with tax collectors, disrespected the sanctity of God’s Holy Sabbath by doing His exhibitionist “magic tricks” in the middle of worship, had his feet erotically massaged by prostitutes, and was killed precisely because of these boundary violations and the way that He flaunted them so aggressively in the faces of the religious authorities. Jesus became despised and condemned in order to show radical hospitality to those who were despised and condemned. You really have to overlook a significant amount of Biblical text in order to make Jesus’ death on the cross exclusively concerned with an economic transaction between Him and His Father.

The exouthenemona are people who have no standing in the world: homosexuals, undocumented immigrants, Palestinians, the incarcerated, the mentally ill. Because they have no standing in the world, they are uniquely uninhibited from entering the kingdom (which doesn’t make them morally better than worldly people). But just like the despised apostate Samaritans whom Jesus championed, they are uniquely qualified to receive and share God’s mercy.

Why did the priest and the Levite pass the mortally wounded traveler on the side of the road? Because they had reputations to protect and their standards of piety had to do with personal moral cleanliness and not with loving their neighbor. The Samaritan had no worldly reputation to risk and no inner monologue to justify dehumanizing the wounded traveler (“He’s probably a drug addicted gang-banger who deserves what he got,” etc). The Samaritan was capable of being “moved with pity” (Luke 10:33). If his story is really Jesus’ paradigmatic expression of love for neighbor, then the capacity for mercy is the most important interpersonal skill that we can have as Christians and our morality should be defined in terms of how our actions impact our capacity for mercy.

In my years of reflecting on the Good Samaritan story after reading Henri Nouwen with my lesbian sisters in Christ, I’ve come to the realization that mercy involves most fundamentally an absence of presumptuousness which makes us able to see the face of the other (Judith Butler helped me with this one too). The reason we often can’t see other people as human beings is because we see them as categories: homosexual, illegal alien, gang-banger, etc. When we condemn categories of other people, we may tell ourselves that we’re taking up Jesus’ cross and standing up for His truth against worldly sin in the face of persecution, but the prayer we’re really praying is “God, I thank you that I’m not like those people” (Luke 18:11).

I fear that many of us read the Bible to look for categories of people we can thank God that we’re not like, which is an abominable abuse of God’s word. If you’re reading the Bible for the sake of your own discipleship and not your self-justification, then what Romans 1:18-32 has to teach you is that worshiping creation instead of the Creator causes a whole mess of social disintegration, so the take-away is that we should scrutinize ourselves for idolatry, which today can include the idolization of virginity and the fetishism of church discipline systems. Idols of any kind not only snub God; they hurt people. That’s what Paul is saying. Paul doesn’t think it’s “natural” for boys to go with boys and girls to go with girls, but it’s not a “Thou shalt not” and it’s a supporting detail of a completely different argument. It doesn’t make this passage any less God-breathed for us to know more than Paul about the natural biological source of same-gender attraction and nevertheless retain the vigilance against idolatry of all kinds which is the point of the passage.

What do you do with the vice lists in Paul’s letters that don’t have any culture war proof-texts like Galatians 5:19-21? Paul says pretty plainly that you will not inherit the kingdom of God if you engage in “fornication, impurity, licentiousness, idolatry, sorcery, enmities, strife, jealousy, anger, quarrels, dissensions, factions,envy, drunkenness, carousing, and things like these.” I wonder what he would say about the conspiracy theory emails that evangelical megachurch pastors like to forward around. Would that fall under strife, dissensions, or factions? And are they going to hell for doing that? If you listen every day to talk radio hosts who promote quarrel and anger as forms of entertainment, does that mean you are an unrepentant sinner?

Does Galatians 5:19-21 not have as much weight as 1 Corinthians 6:9-10 or 1 Timothy 1:9-10 because it doesn’t include categories of people that we can scapegoat and define ourselves against? Paul had just gotten through telling the Galatians they’re justified by faith, and then he says this. Yikes! Is it possible that Paul is being hyperbolic in his exhortation? This doesn’t even enter into the question of the meaning of the contentious, obscure Greek words arsenokotai and malakoi (which may or may not have something to do with homosexuality) in 1 Corinthians 6:9-10 and 1 Timothy 1:9-10, a question which really can’t be answered beyond reasonable doubt, despite the zealous fury and voluminous output of anti-gay activist scholar Robert Gagnon. If these two words had to do with any other issue, then scholars would admit that trying to define them is a largely speculative enterprise.

Since I believe in the justification by faith which Paul promised me, I can’t take his lists literally as systematic categories of damnable offenses. But I do take his counsel seriously that getting caught up in quarrels, addictions, and idolatry keeps me from entering into the presence of God and hearing the voice of His love. Because my gospel of mercy presumes that the problem is my blindness to God’s love and not God’s intolerance for my imperfection, it’s not enough for me to pray Jesus into my heart in a sincere and persuasive enough way for God to move me to the yes column. The point of doing that (which is absolutely important) is to begin the process of opening my eyes to God’s love, which continues as the Holy Spirit sanctifies me.

My brother Jonathan Martin preached a sermon on February 3, 2013 about the story of Jesus and the Samaritan woman at the well in John 4, talking about the way that our greatest need as human beings is to be completely known and completely loved by somebody, which is what Jesus did for this woman. What do you think Jesus would do if he met a lesbian woman at a well in Samaria? Go ahead and say it: he would call her out on her sin just like he called out the woman in the story on her adultery so she could repent and be saved. That’s the way we’ve all heard this story preached. Here’s the only problem. That doesn’t happen in John 4! We have completely superimposed our cultural presuppositions onto the text. This common misinterpretation is perhaps the most flagrant example of how our 21st century suburban social sensibilities have completely compromised our ability to read what’s actually in the Bible.

To us, a woman who’s been married 5 times and is shacking up with a sixth guy is an ancient version of Elizabeth Taylor or some other serially polygamous Hollywood starlet. But in a first century Jewish context, only men had the power to divorce and they could do so unilaterally for any reason at any time. Maybe she was a bad cook; maybe she wasn’t good in bed; maybe she had acute social anxiety. There is no way to know why she had five husbands, whether each of them had divorced her or died or some mix thereof. The fact that the sixth guy wouldn’t marry her says something about her desperate social position that she was willing to be his girl on the side. Jesus’ statement of truth about her life is utterly absent of judgment. It has to be eisegeted into the text. The most we can say about what Jesus says is that it indicates His solidarity with her. Because she’s exouthenemenos and those are His people.

And yet it is so “obvious” to us that she’s an adulteress because sexuality is the exclusive moral topic for evangelical Christianity today and we want this woman to be another person that we can thank God we’re not like. I don’t think we should feel safe assuming that other passages in the Bible are not “obvious” to us because of the same anachronistic presumptuousness and need for self-justification. If Jesus were calling her out on her sin, then we could expect a word like sin, forgiveness, or repentance to appear somewhere in the story, but they don’t. The response that His statement triggers is her recognition that He’s a prophet. Then she finds out that He’s the messiah and runs immediately to tell as many people as she can. She is His first evangelist and her testimony is not about her “conversion” from sexual immorality. She says simply, “Come see the man who told me everything I ever did. Could this be the messiah?” Her social illegitimacy as exouthenemenos means that she has nothing to lose, so she’s ready to throw herself into the kingdom.

I really think there is something essential about being illegitimate as a basis for mercy. You cannot be truly merciful unless you’ve taken up your cross and eschewed your worldly prestige. As long as we have a stake in our worldly legitimacy, then our relationships with others will be defined by our concern for the maintenance of this legitimacy. We will keep on walking past when we see mortally wounded travelers because we just don’t want to get involved. We have to be exouthenemenos to gain the freedom to be moved by mercy.

I myself am exouthenemenos in a pretty esoteric way. I am a United Methodist pastor whose ministry is critically dependent upon impersonating a Catholic layperson every Monday at noon. The two most important things I do each week are to tear bread for my Methodist flock on Saturday and to receive the host from my priest on Monday. I cannot convert to Catholicism because I’m called to both marriage and sacramental ministry and I support my wife’s sacramental authority as a pastor, but I am not willing to give up the most important means of grace God provides me each week. So I’m trapped permanently in between. But I know that this is what God wants me to do because He has revealed it to me.

You have no reason to trust that I know this. I imagine more than a few Catholics would say that I am eating Christ to my damnation. I cannot provide any justification for what I am doing. It is completely incomprehensible and possibly even heretical. But Christ’s real body is the source of everything I am and do. It was comforting to read in the program for an event at the basilica that Protestants “under normal circumstances” are not permitted Eucharist because of the false papered over ecumenism it would represent. That gave me hope that I could petition for a special dispensation if I were outed. I imagine that what I am doing would be viewed as no less grave a sin by the Catholic church than homosexuality. I understand their rationale and I grieve schism, but I maintain that both sides are at fault.

The illegitimacy of what I’m doing is critical to my sanctification, because of the beautiful terror that I experience every time the priest looks into my eyes and I worry that he knows I’m a Protestant. When I say, “Lord, I am not worthy for you to enter under my roof, but only say the word and my soul shall be healed,” it is a very palpable experience for me. I decided to do something very terrifying today. For the first time, I opened my mouth for the priest to put the host on my tongue. I had been scared to do it before because I figured I would do it wrong and he would say, “Get out of line, Protestant infiltrator.” He seemed to frown a little bit, but I’m not sure if it was just me.

I wonder if what I experience as a closet Protestant at Catholic mass every Monday is at all analogous to being a gay Christian, at least in this sense: I have no justification outside of the personal revelation I have received from God for the conviction that He has called me to do exactly what I’m doing. And if some sanctimonious jerk says that I’m being selfish or disrespectful in some kind of way for fasting on my one day off from ministry and going to a Catholic mass instead of playing golf because that’s the way I have received the encounters with God that sustain my theological and pastoral work for Him, then God bless you. I’m not Jesus but I’ll paraphrase His words from John 7:17-18 anyway. If you are truly intimate with the God who is love (and not a demonic bogeyman you have projected), then you will know whether my testimony is from God or if I am speaking on my own. Show me where I am seeking my own glory so that I can be more perfectly sanctified since I am a prophet whose flesh often corrupts God’s word. Otherwise accept my testimony as the truth.

There is no way for me to imagine in any kind of way the persecution and spiritual anguish that gay Christians have experienced. How intense is the crucible of sanctification that must be active in someone who has remained Christian despite having a damned existence and going through a level of soul-searching and spiritual wrestling I cannot begin to imagine? I believe that the perfectly benevolent God that I worship has made it possible for people who are biologically different than the majority to avoid worshiping creation instead of the creator and disinheriting themselves from the kingdom of God while being able to live in some form of companionship with another person like them. I don’t know what this looks like, nor do I think it’s possible to determine so with static proof-texts; it can only be lived through in prudent, studious discipleship under an entirely benevolent, merciful Father.

I have a lot of admiration for anyone heterosexual or homosexual who chooses to be celibate; Paul says in 1 Corinthians 7 that marriage was a pragmatic concession for those of us who couldn’t control ourselves otherwise. We tend to ignore that detail because we like to idolize the historically recent concept of nuclear families as God’s will for human community from the beginning. I would hope that whatever gay Christians are counseled to do would not involve appeals to a God whose goodness is nihilistic perfectionism rather than perfect benevolence.

I am increasingly convinced that the ugly theology of the perfectionist God is the product of a serious demonic infiltration of the American church. I cannot help but wonder to what degree the Christian anti-gay movement is part of a subconscious strategy to make heterosexual chastity into the “cross” that suburban Christianity “takes up” so that suburban Christians won’t have to give up their water-ski boats and the expensive summer sports camps to which they send their all-star preteens. To what degree does our obsession with sexual purity serve the purpose of giving us moral cover to walk past wounded travelers?

What I can say is that the exouthenemena have been chosen by God to bring to nothing the world of power and privilege that so many of us American Christians have a lot of stake in. Sorry, but that’s just what the Bible says. This is not a scary thing to me because the exouthenemena I’ve known have been people who were infinitely more infused with mercy than those of us who express our piety by saying prayers of self-congratulatory thanksgiving at their expense. I aspire to live in the mercy that my lesbian sisters in Christ taught me. And so I continue to search for what it means that God desires mercy not sacrifice.

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