As an introductory caveat: Words and opinions are fluid. I am rooted in God but growing in faith. This is a conversation I have been having with myself, and I am still learning. In your reading, please offer me the grace I want to offer each of you.
People who ‘evangelize others’ by passing out little booklets about Hell on street-corners have always made me incredibly uncomfortable. This is to say nothing of people who yell from crates about salvation and sin. I am horrified at what they are doing and how on earth they think it is helpful. And I am a Christian. My attitude extends to people who make political movements out of churchgoers. It makes me profoundly uncomfortable that people can use Christianity as a justification for having a monopoly on what’s “right” and what’s “moral.” Something about assuming that there are baseline identities and beliefs that set ‘believers’ apart from ‘unbelievers’ doesn’t sit well with me in my heart of hearts.
In my several years of churchgoing, I have encountered some circles of people who think that true Christians must always be straight. But I have also encountered circles of people who think that all true Christians have moved forward from “that out-of-context, homophobic misinterpreted Bible verse” and shouldn’t give a damn what your sexual orientation is. I have heard Christians so worried about being theologically correct in their doctrine, that they live in fear of engaging with other faiths; people who come up and speak to me in hushed and horrified tones about how ‘Eastern’ and ‘African’ and ‘Islamic’ religious practices are taking over students in Western colleges.
One thing I have always been confused by is the approval Christian women give to each other when someone gets married: “I’m so happy you’ve found a good, God-fearing, Christian man for yourself!” they’ll say, as if his faith is just a stamp of approval on his resume. I suppose that I take issue with anyone treating faith as a qualifier or a demographic—using “good Christian man” to refer to a specific set of beliefs, behaviors, and culture that are “safe” to marry.
I hate that moment when a public evangelist walks up to me after I admit to him that I am already a Christian, and starts talking to me as if we share this secret thing and we “get it”, but the other people he’s been yelling at just don’t. I have spent time in Christian circles where even I would find it terrifying to admit that I am pro-choice (or rather, pro- foster care reform) because it is so taken for granted that all ‘true believers’ must be pro-life.
Honestly, the line between Christian and non-Christian, between ‘believers’ and ‘unbelievers’, between ‘followers of Jesus’ and ‘secular folks’– all semantic variations for different crowds– makes me profoundly uncomfortable. If God sent Christ for all people, why are we so busy trying to separate people into two different conversations? Where is the integrity in that?
I cannot tell you how many times a Christian friend of mine has said to me, “Come on! You know this is right.” They all assume I agree with them. Or how horrified I have been to find some of the beliefs, behaviors, or political leanings that my non-Christians friends and family have assumed of me, just because they know I am involved at a church.
It is almost as if Christianity today is all about being right. It is the right doctrine, the right belief system, the right politics, the right culture. It’s an exclusive club you subscribe to– like a lemming–, and when you are right, you get your ticket to heaven, and a contract to start convincing other people around you about what’s right. If it’s a religion, it’s the right one to be in, where all the popular and cool kids end up, where you can be part of the in crowd.
Of course, I cannot neglect that this self-righteousness (because isn’t that what it is to be so convinced that you are right?) extends across this bound of those who believe in God and don’t, those who think institutionalized religion is safe and those who think it’s the most destructive force on our planet. Everybody who wants one has a soapbox from which they can stand and denounce everyone else as wrong– Christians denouncing non-Christians, non-Christians denouncing Christians, Christians denouncing other Christians, people denouncing other people. We all opine and pontificate as loudly as possible as often as possible for surely this is how we will save ourselves and each other.
And we wonder why it is so hard to hear the voice of God in our world any more.
I used to think that it was kind of anal of God when, in the third commandment he gave to Israel, he commanded that no one should misuse the Lord’s name, for the Lord would not ‘acquit’ anyone who wrongfully used his name. Name-calling seemed somehow below God, in my imagination. If God is so great and powerful and loving, why would he care if I called out his name when I stubbed my toe?
But after many varying seasons of doubts, confusion, faith, and the struggles and wonder of life, I think I see a tiny bit of the wisdom in that command. I see how well God knows us and how much he understands just how we work. For in all our inadequate communication as humans, what we call things can have a profound effect on how we identify things– and how much we respect them. With such a limited way to interpret and understand our surroundings and selves, mere words become the building blocks of our worlds. We offer words to communicate, to describe, to identify.
I wonder often—especially recently—if God meant that commandment to refer to the word “Christian” as well. Every time I describe myself using that word to someone new, I feel myself cringe a bit inside. There is no word that is so smeared, politically charged, potentially judgmental and hurtful. Originally penned to describe the “little Christs” that seemed to be wandering around, serving others, and encouraging hope in the centuries after the death of Jesus of Nazareth, Christianity has become a political-cultural phenomenon at war with itself in the modern era. There are mini-Sarah Palins as much as there are mini Dave Schmelzers, there are mini Shane Claibornes and there are mini-George Bushes. All claiming to be little Christs.
I have something to confess. I think– now that I reflect on my college life– that I was afraid. I was afraid that people on both sides would find me out. I let myself live within this awkward boundary of Christian or non-Christian and try to exist and function there, as if I wouldn’t rip myself in half straddling the impossibilities of this made-up bifurcated existence. I am both, guys. I am both. I am both faithful and doubting. I am both following Jesus and trying to figure out why Jesus should be followed. To my non-Christian, liberal, world-changing kind of friends: I am one of you. To my Christian friends: I am one of you. To my disaffected, disillusioned, no-longer-believing friends: I am one of you too.
And woe to me for the times in my life when I denied to myself and to others any of these parts of me. What a disservice I did to my “non-Christian” friends for not letting them into my own conversation about whether God or Jesus could be real or what impact this should or shouldn’t have on my life. What a disservice I did both to myself and to my friends of other faiths by trying to convince myself that my Christian authorities must be right for some reason in thinking that I have an exclusive monopoly on what’s right and that I should keep away from faiths that might lead me astray. And what a disservice I did to the other Christians I walked with by being silent about my politics or my opinions or my depression or my questions and struggles with faith.
Mostly, what a disservice I did to myself by beating myself up for not liking the set of activities that Christianity was ‘supposed to be’, for not believing all the ‘right things.’
So I’m confessing this now.
If you are ever in a space with me, I hope that you know that you can be yourself. There are no small groups where we all agree on everything, there are only small groups where everyone pretends to have the same beliefs so they can fit in better. But we cannot deny pieces of ourselves. Every side of us has a right to the conversation. So, If you want to talk faith with me, please bring all of yourself to the conversation. It is okay if you believe multiple things at once, understand multiple contradictory things to be true, or can’t believe that which you want to believe– at least completely. Just be yourself with me. The boundaries of “believers” or “non-believers” hardly exist. I truly believe that we are each both. It is impossible to believe fully in God without understanding the ways to not believe in him; it is impossible to choose not to believe in God without having some beliefs about him. We are all prodigal children– both the prodigal heart and the child of God.
I’m starting to think that sharing faith is an exchange of both faith and doubt: we are to seek God in all things, among all peoples.
Faith, after all, seems to mean that in doubt, we look to God.
In the end, I have no answers and I have nothing to sell. I am not subscribed to anything or offering a subscription to anything. I am not interested in adding to the numbers of Christian lemmings in the world. Not that all Christians are lemmings– I suspect, indeed, that most aren’t at all… rather we’ve all just been putting on a face so we could fit in better.
I am not sure if I think that the boundary between believers and unbelievers is theologically correct anyhow, honestly. It seems that even when our hearts are fully turned to God, we must admit that our hearts are still trapped in a world that constantly calls us away, to Death. Faith is a never-ending fight—and that’s why it grows us.
I don’t think God calls us to be right. Rather, he calls us to him. He is truth– he is love– and he is a person that we can relate to and know. Which seems much better than having all the answers.
The funny thing about uncovering the conversations in my head is that I don’t think my faith has ever been stronger. It is a wonderfully freeing moment to admit all your questions and your beliefs and accept all these different sides of yourself at the same time.
Lately, I have been learning about having compassion for myself, loving myself, being kind and gracious to myself. Looking back, I think God has been defending me from myself these last ten years, and I am overwhelmingly grateful for his protection. Who knows what I could have done to myself, at war with myself over religion, politics, and identity, if he weren’t having the compassion for me I denied myself? If he didn’t provide for me and guide me and step in to shield me from the blows of a perfectionist beating herself up for failures of faith.
Faith is something we can’t have on our own, without help. We pray to believe, we pray because we believe, we believe because we find ourselves praying in those moments of utter helplessness and total loss. Some part of us is rooted in God. I think that, as Ecclesiastes says, God put a piece of himself into each of our hearts, a piece that knows what is true and good, that loves and is beloved, that “desires things that nothing in this world can satisfy”—that remembers eternity. Words don’t do justice to that depth of each of us.
And Christianity is beautiful, honestly. The faith of Brother Lawrence and Teresa of Avila and St. Augustine and Richard Foster and Frank Laubach and William Wilberforce… I want to be a part of that legacy. The pure Christian faith tradition is remarkable in its humility. These great Christians I look up to were imperfect in their faith, seekers every moment of their lives–seeking God, seeking out what God was doing in the world around them, seeking to be a part of those changes. They sought to change the world around them, to bring more justice to the world and to lessen the sufferings of others. Their hearts felt suffering deeply and felt joy deeply. They were rooted in God and therefore in themselves. Pure Christianity is a life of pure, simple worship, of humility before God and others and before the vastness with which truth goes beyond our understanding. It is a life of grace to ourselves and others. Christian missionaries go out not to bring light into the darkness but to find God in all of himself, wider than the world we know, and serve him there. Pure Christianity is welcoming to everyone and is possible for everyone– no matter ethnicity or ‘religion’ or culture. It is a life that is true to ourselves and our hearts. That is what a God that comes in the form of Christ has for us.
In my life, I think I have– despite everything– been walking willingly and joyfully along this path of pure Christian faith. To be a little Christ. The devil may come alongside and point out how easily confused my path is with religious and political paths that horrify me– or how close I am to being misinterpreted and labeled a heretic by people I respect. He may whisper in my ear all the terrible things we have allowed to happen to Christ’s name– the connotations and cultures smeared all over the word “Christianity” until it is just another label good only for throwing out. He may incite all the politicians and pontificators in the world to take that word and toss it out for their own glory and their own uses and justification, beating up on Christ and stealing my faith from me by making it nameless.
But that’s fine. Deny me a name for my faith. Slander “Jesus” as a performative joke, give “Christianity” to the right-wing fundamentalists,” make “God” the ground of those who can’t make a decision about faith. It’s fine. You can expect me to believe certain things, assume certain things about me, and judge me for all the ways you think I’m wrong or have bad doctrine. You can even walk up to me after reading this and start talking to me as if you and I have it right and everyone else has it wrong, denying all the other Christians the value of their faith practices and their own journeys (please don’t. they need grace too.).
Jesus let himself be wronged. He didn’t worry too much about what other people thought about him– even if it got him killed. He found it more important to love than to be seen as right.
So, I’m going to pick up that word, “Christianity,” and I’m going to try to wash it off and gently set it to dry, to treat it with all the reverence that God asked for in the third commandment. Kind of like cleaning the kitchen of my houseful of college students where the sink is always full and the floor is always unswept, I’ll quietly step in and serve my home with not anger but love. I do not want to war with other people using my God’s name– he is justice, and in his reflection, I become grace. So I hope that next time I tell you I am a Christian your heart will swell with the thrill that to claim that word is an honor, a humble step into seeking that which I cannot understand or know, in holding God’s hand and doing life with him.
And maybe I’m wrong.
But I love God with all of my heart and soul and mind and strength– more than words can describe. He is my life and my life’s calling. I love myself– all of myself– with all the grace and compassion I can. And I love you– all of each of you, just as much. And this is what Christ called us to do.