I grew up in a conservative Christian home, in a conservative Christian church, in a small, declining town. I know the preferred language of the church. I can play the role that people seem to want. I can put on the face of the righteous.
But why? Who are we helping when we act like all is grand? Who is gaining from our pretense in having all the answers? Who is reached when we rail against those who think or believe differently than we? Where in Christ’s ministry did he demonstrate that false perfection is our goal? Where in His life did He model judgement and rules as the righteous path?
The past year has brought unfathomable change to my life. To my mind. To my faith. To my attitudes. To my actions. It has been (and continues to be) a difficult journey. But the difficulty is found not in the renewed and refreshing interpretation of the Bible that I seem to keep finding. The difficulty is in the reaction from the church. The unwillingness to look at our beliefs and question if we are right. The stubborn stance that we must hold fast our traditions even if they might be wrong. Are we fighting the good fight or just fighting?
Allow me to stop here and stress that I am part of a good church. It is full of many believers who are trying to follow what they believe. It is lead by pastors who demonstrate by their actions what it means to help others. It is always searching for more possible ways to help our community. People give. People travel to help others. But it is not perfect. It is full of imperfect people, just like every single church out there.
And yet I, and some others like me, have felt alone, isolated, judged. I’ve seen the sidelong, raised eyebrow looks. I’ve read the snarky condemnations online. Most people happily bounce along the surface of their faith, of their thoughts, of their lives. And that is ok for them. Many people never really question why they believe what they believe. Many are content to continue the script from the past generation.
I am not.
We are made with brains full of wonder, of questions. Brains that wish to connect dots and make sense of life. Why are we so willing to shut that off when it comes to faith? Why are we so willing to just accept what men have taught us instead of searching for ourselves? Why do we bury our heads when it comes to church history and how much theology has swung in wildly varying directions? How do we expect to tell someone else what our faith is all about if we don’t understand it ourselves?
Here’s an example that I witnessed recently. Why is it wrong for someone to question whether God could be both man AND woman? Why not? He created us in His image. Why would that possibility make us so uncomfortable? Isn’t God far larger and more complex than our minds can fathom? Why do we keep Him in our human box? Does that box serve a purpose other than our comfort? I for one find it far more wonderful to have a God that is too big and too grand for me to fully grasp.
Or how about this: Why is it so important for Christians to insist that being gay is a choice and not an inborn trait for some? Who cares. Our world is imperfect. Scripture tells us that creation has suffered from the fall of man since the Garden of Eden. We see differences in how people are born every day. Why is this one so hard to accept? I don’t know why my student was born imperfectly with cerebral palsy. But he was. I don’t know why my friend’s brain is wired for depression. But it is. I don’t know why my cousin’s child was born with a heart defect. But she was. Aren’t these physical examples of the beauty, fragility, and imperfection of humans? Can’t all of these people add greatly to our community with their unique and personal experiences? Why can’t sexuality be the same? People all have different gifts, different challenges, different traits. They can ALL be used for the glory of God if we allow it. All. What can the life of that gay person teach us as they work out their faith? What does that look like? Are we willing to even ask?
Imagine with me an environment where people of all backgrounds, of all faiths, of all circumstances, could feel welcome and loved. Note that I didn’t say anything about altering our core beliefs in the gospel. There is no point to all church debate if we don’t agree that salvation through Christ is the centerpiece. I simply said that all would be loved and welcomed. The early church had an incredibly simple message. The teachings of Christ were/are simple enough for a child to understand and follow. Why do we muddy the water with man made rules? Why create a hierarchy of acceptable and unacceptable behaviors and people? Where and when did Christ do that?
Christ spoke incredibly clearly when He told the church leaders of His day what the greatest commandments were. He said, “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.” (Matthew 22: 37-40 NIV).
If Christ is our example and final authority, then we should listen to His words.
If Christ is God incarnate and the final authority, then we should heed His words.
If Christ said that “all the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments” I’m thinking He meant it. So, those who like to club people with scripture from the Old Testament and the Prophets—are those two vital commandments superseding what the Prophets said? Because Jesus said they do. When there is any question of what is more important in the Bible, we can confidently come back to this. Am I loving how and who I am commanded to? All the rest is secondary. Love first. That’s not my opinion. That’s Christ’s. His words. His teaching.
Jesus’s ministry on earth was amazing. It’s growth and following was explosive and committed. Why were the crowds attracted to Him? Did He teach rules and tradition? Did He tsk tsk those who lived lives against God’s Law? NO. He loved. He forgave. He gave them new tools for living a new and better life. We can never live up to His perfect standard. But we can darn well try. And we are commanded to do so. We read the Bible. We pray. We love. The conviction of individual’s sins is up to God. Not us.
But Jesus was killed for His words and actions. Yes. By good, disciplined, traditional, religious people using the local authorities to do their dirty work. “Then the chief priests and the elders of the people assembled in the palace of the high priest, whose name was Caiaphas, and they plotted to arrest Jesus in some sly way and kill him.” (Matthew 26:3-4 NIV). Not the atheists. Not the liberals. Not the drunks, or the gays, or the prostitutes. Not the homeless, the poor, or the refugee. The church leaders. THEY sought to kill Jesus.
Make no mistake. We humans are fairly stupid and stubborn. The Bible is chock full of story after story after story of people messing up. Often those people claim they are doing the right thing. Or chose to ignore the clear teaching that they were doing the wrong thing. So why do we like to pretend we are any different? We can just as easily insist that we are doing the righteous thing as Saul did when he took the Ark of the Covenant into battle (basically to ensure victory). God never told Him to do so. And the Ark was stolen. Oops.
So how do we know? How do we check if we are on the right path? We study scripture. Relentlessly and deeply. We pray. We listen to God–even if it is different than the voices of tradition. God is big enough (and small enough) to teach us what He wants us to know no matter our education, our background, or our original faith tradition. We just need to ask Him to teach us. We just need to be willing to listen. We just need to be willing to change paths if we discover we have been wrong. We never stop questioning if we are loving God and others above all else.
And the church as a whole needs to be willing to let people question, to let people ask, to let people wonder. Otherwise, how do we know if we are fighting the good fight or just fighting?