I started working on this post last week. Yesterday, Karl Forehand-one of my best friends in the world-published a post here on Patheos entitled “Don’t Call Me Christian“. While Karl and I may seem like we are presenting diametrically opposing views here, I find that so much of what he has written in his column (and elsewhere) resonates deeply within me. I’m grateful for his voice and our friendship and I’m not the least bit worried that this difference in perspective will diminish either.
One year ago this month, our little church in the Alabama countryside closed its doors forever. One year prior, we made the difficult decision to stop holding Sunday morning worship services and opted instead to serve our community-one of Alabama’s poorest and most addicted-by hosting a free food market where our neighbors in need could shop for fresh meats, dairy, produce, pantry items, paper goods, and more in an atmosphere that empowered dignity and treated our neighbors with love and respect. It was beautiful. After awhile, a neighbor asked if we would consider hosting a worship gathering for the market families once a month, which we did. It was a beautiful expression of church. After hosting the market for a year, our giving was down and we could no longer afford the building we were meeting in. It broke my heart. My family and I ended up moving out of state.
By the time the church closed, I was neck deep into deconstruction. Months earlier while walking around the track at my local gym, I had an encounter with the love of God that crashed over me like waves of liquid love disarming my fear and evicting my apathy. In an instant, I could no longer believe that our God of love could sentence billions of people throughout history to burn for all eternity (or even some segment of it) in Hell. I could no longer exclude our LGBTQ+ siblings from the love of God. I could no longer tolerate the manipulation that takes place in churches week after week as they pursue the three N’s that I was taught about in Bible college-nickels, numbers, and noses. I had long ago soured on the Bible Belt church’s empowerment of politicians who spoke of God and faith but whose policies did not reflect the values of Jesus of Nazareth. Once our little church closed its’ doors, I believed that I was done with Christianity and the institutional church.
When I was twelve, I had surgery to remove my tonsils. I don’t know if the anesthesiologist gave me too much medication or if I just had a bad reaction, but my heart stopped on the operating table. During that time, I had a very cliche’ near death experience featuring a light at the end of a long tunnel. As I approached the source of the light I realized the light was radiating from a person-Jesus. In that His light, I felt completely known yet completely loved. I knew that I was important and that my life mattered. I also knew that my life wasn’t over yet. Soon after, I woke up thinking the whole thing had been some medically induced dream until I overheard my mom on the phone talking about how they had lost me on the operating table.
The love and acceptance that I experienced in the presence of Jesus stood in a stark contrast to the legalism and spiritual abuse that I had experienced as a child in church. From that moment on and long into my two decades of ministry, there was a tug-of-war between legalism and grace. When I was feeling secure and confident about myself, I would preach about the love and grace of God. When I was feeling insecure and inadequate, I would find myself drawn to the Bible passages that I could use to put conditions on the unconditional love of God and to shame people into “getting right with God”. It was exhausting for me and, I’m certain, traumatic for the people who had to listen to it week after week. I’m so sorry for that. That back and forth battle finally and mercifully ended that day walking around the track at the gym.
Born Again Again
This last year I have experienced so much freedom and growth. I didn’t realize how imprisoned I had been until I was out. Stepping out of the boat is only terrifying until we do it. Once we do, we realize that’s where we were always meant to be.
Over the years, I’ve encountered Jesus in a variety of settings. Once in Romania, I saw Him lifting his arms with great joy at the back of a sanctuary filled with worshippers as if He couldn’t wait to wrap everyone there in a loving embrace. During one particularly difficult season, there was a spot in the woods near the first church I pastored where Jesus always seemed to be waiting for me. Whenever I haven’t seen Him in awhile, I go looking for Him among the hungry and the homeless and I can always find Him there-loving those who feel most rejected by society.
After several months of avoiding communal worship, I couldn’t shake the desire to experience Jesus in community. My family and I visited one church and liked it but the pastor’s social media feed made it clear that the church was caught in that same tug-of-war between legalism and grace that I had been caught up in for so many years. We didn’t go back. Disillusioned, I gave up on finding a community of freedom until leaving the mall one day I noticed a band practicing in a storefront for Sunday worship. Soon after, my family and I visited that little storefront church and I felt that same loving presence I had experienced as a child on the operating table. This was not the kind of church I had been a part of previously. This congregation is welcoming and affirming and an active presence for justice in our community. The pastor is a woman and a member of the LGBTQ+ community. They receive communion at an open table where everyone is welcome. Often, a woman with no legs serves the bread and wine from her wheelchair. It’s beautiful. I feel at home there.
There’s a lot about Christianity (especially the American version) that I hate. I grieve all of the racism, white supremacy, slavery, discrimination, abuse, manipulation, and war that has been empowered in the name of God. I despise our alliance with empire as we ask God’s blessing to send our young men and women off to kill and die in foreign lands. It infuriates me that so much of the church looks nothing at all like the Jesus that we claim to worship.
But that’s why I can’t quit Christianity. While so much damage has been done in the name of Christ there have also been Christian movements throughout history that have brought monumental change for the good of all. Slavery was abolished in England by Christians. Hospitals and schools have been built to heal the sick and teach people to read. Christians have marched for changes to unjust labor laws, alongside Martin Luther King to advance civil rights, and against war. The Catholic Sisters of Charity carry dying people out of the streets of India to allow them to die with dignity in an place where they are loved. This is the Christianity I believe in-a vibrant faith that loves and includes everyone, uses no one, feeds the hungry, dismantles empires, and teaches us that God is love and keeps no record of wrongs who wants us to love our enemies and never return evil for evil. This is the movement that Jesus started more than 2,000 years ago! His movement continues today.
Yes, there are toxic Christians doing despicable things in Jesus’ name, but the name and movement of Jesus are too holy to be left to ruin. The Church has veered far off track, but that doesn’t mean that the movement of Jesus has been lost. There are still thousands of sincere followers of Jesus of Nazareth who are doing their best to follow His lead with their whole hearts. Many of them will never again darken the doors of the institutional church, but then again, that’s never been the point of Christianity. I think my friend, Karl, and I can agree on that.