Christianity

From the Shoreline

I have always felt that the action most worth watching is not at the center of things but where edges meet. I like shorelines, weather fronts, international borders. There are interesting frictions and incongruities in these places, and often, if you stand at the point of tangency, you can see both sides better than if you were in the middle of either one.                -Anne Fadiman

This passage, from the preface of Fadiman’s beautiful book, The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down, rang in my head yesterday as I navigated, poorly, between two worlds: the world of my Evangelical upbringing and the one in which I now reside, albeit still as something of an outsider.

I stood at the shoreline, seeing both sides, fully connected to neither and pulled toward both. In a moment of thoughtlessness, I wounded people on one side, and in my desperate attempt to repair the damage, I wounded people on the other.

I have dwelt in the middle of Evangelical Christianity. I lived the first forty years of my life steeped in its doctrine. I know first-hand the certainty of a single truth, the conviction that those without it are lost, and the call to resist a culture straying from God. I know the sense of injustice at being called hateful when you know, deeply, that you are seeking to protect what God has created and ordained. I know the voices reminding you that the insults, the hits you are taking were prophesied; they confirm that your path is God’s path. I know the urge to cry out that you don’t hate people; you hate sin. You love humanity because God loves humanity and you yearn for their salvation. You know that, in the end, it’s all that matters, and you will fight for it whatever the cost.

But now I am standing outside, at the edge. And I see it differently, if not better. I see it from the standpoint of those who feel hated. I see inconsistencies and disconnects that I never saw before. I see, from the shoreline, that the greatest dangers the world faces are not the ones at which the Evangelical community is swinging its sword. I see the strongest voices in the Church driving people further away, reaffirming their belief that if there is a loving God, this is not where He is to be found. I see the horrific damage being done in the name of Christian values, the very real pain people feel. I see, from the border, that even if Evangelicals are right, they are wrong. People are wounded, threatened. They are not turning to Christ. They are turning from you. However certain you are that you are acting in obedience to God, the consequences of your actions are devastating. From the shoreline, it’s ugly.

And I see this other world too, where I don’t quite belong either. It looks less like Sodom and Gomorrah that I expected and more like the community I’ve often heard described from the pulpit. People fight less for valued norms than for each other. They stand up for the marginalized and they challenge structures of power that keep some voices silent. I came to this community believing I had a higher moral calling, but from the shoreline, morality is less clear-cut. I don’t feel “right” asserting my Evangelical beliefs in this world. I don’t even feel Godly. I feel ashamed. Because where the edges meet, the values we have come to associate with Christian faith look nothing like the character of Christ.

Yesterday, I reacted with anger and cynicism to what I see as destructive behavior on the part of Evangelicals. My post was sarcastic and mean, and in that sense just as destructive as the behavior I condemned. But when I removed it and apologized, I betrayed the values, and the people, I’d sought to defend. A friend sent me a message last night that said, “I agreed with your post, and with your decision to remove it.” I felt the same way, and the opposite. I simultaneously stand by and regret both choices.

The shoreline is a fascinating place to be and a painful place to be. I am learning and growing by leaps and bounds and crashing to the ground with nearly every leap.

But for all that I don’t know, I do know this: Evangelicals, the message you believe you are sending is not the message being received. You are obscuring rather than illuminating Jesus. Your reasons don’t matter. Your justifications don’t matter. Your convictions don’t matter. You are not advancing the Gospel. If that is somehow okay with you, then you have lost sight of the mission.

Do with that what you will. But I’m standing where the edges meet, and I love you enough to tell you what I see. Over and over. Until you hear. Because it matters. The Gospel matters. People matter.

 

 

Christianity · Singleness

Christian, Conservative, and…Single??

I took my first “spiritual gift test” (yes, that’s a thing) the summer before my senior year in high school. It was sort of fun. Like a personality test. I remember very little about the results. What I do remember is that one member of our group was more than a little alarmed when the “gift of celibacy” emerged near the top of her list. I listened as others reminded her that she was only 15 and assured her that it was unlikely a multiple-choice test could destine her for a nunnery.  But the gift of celibacy came out high on my list too, and I knew exactly why. The test included true-false statements like, “The idea of being single is traumatic for me.” I wasn’t yet 17, but I answered the question confidently as “false.” Evidently, most people had not.

Four years later, I was sitting around a table with a church leader and several other high school and college students. We took turns responding to the question, “Where do you think you’ll be in ten years?” My answer included school, career, and geographical location, but it left out an essential element. Someone quickly followed up:

“Do you think you’ll be married?”

“No…I really don’t.”

The church leader chimed in, “The problem with Heather is that she has no self-esteem. She’d be a great catch. She just doesn’t believe it.” It was true that I lacked self-esteem. But I thought it was an interesting assumption that if I expected not to marry, I must deem myself unworthy.

I’ve been asked many times by well-meaning friends and acquaintances how it happened that I never got married. I’m sure any psychologist would relish the opportunity to explore all the weird and complicated personal history that contributed to this circumstance, but the truth is that it was never part of my vision for my life. I never imagined myself as a wife and mother. I never dreamed of my wedding like so many young women do.

But I’d be lying if I said I’ve never been bothered by it. I often am. I hate seeing “and guest” after my name on a wedding invitation. I dread bridal showers and baby showers because it’s hard to celebrate rites of passage that I sometimes feel like I missed. I’m uncomfortable in groups when conversation turns to marriage and relationships. I have asked family members and close friends if they think something is wrong with me. I have ventured into dating several times and every time have reached the same conclusion: I hate this. It doesn’t fit. It isn’t me.  When I am asked (and I have been), “Do you wish you were married?”,  the honest answer is no. I do not wish I were married. I just wish I weren’t abnormal.

In college and throughout my 20’s, I asked my mother several times if it worried her that I might not get married. And -God bless her traditional, conservative, Bible-believing heart -she always said no, and I believed her. My maternal grandmother, also a conservative Christian who will forever be one of my favorite people and greatest heroes, adored her husband and grieved his loss but wished marriage on no woman and made no bones about that. That the two most important women in my life, traditional as they were, never urged me to find a husband was a gift I didn’t recognize until years later.

In my early 30’s, I began to realize that nowhere was being single as uncomfortable as it was at church. Once we pass the college/career group stage, we define groups by gender and marital status. We have couples’ groups, moms’ groups, men’s groups, women’s groups, senior groups, and, yes, singles’ groups. I have attended exactly two singles’ group meetings in my life. One quite obviously offered treatment for singleness; the other was a struggling start-up in a church clearly geared to families. I tried to attend women’s events but got tired of hat themes (“We ladies wear so many hats! Wives, mothers, career women…) and Bible studies about busyness. I cringed every time a pastor said from the pulpit, “Ladies, turn to your husbands…” and avoided every sermon series on dating and marriage.

I knew these topics applied to most people and never expected the church to cater to my interests. But I have always felt that church didn’t quite know what to do with me. It was organized around the traditional family structure, and I didn’t fit. I so wanted to eliminate the categories and just be one among many adults. I wanted not to be excluded from a house-building trip because this one was a “men’s” trip or a “family” trip. I wanted not to have my gender, age, and marital status constantly highlighted.

Importantly, it only recently occurred to me that my own discomfort would barely even register compared to that of someone who was gay or gender noncomforming. I can walk into a women’s ministry event without turning heads. I might not feel like I fit, but at least I look like I fit. My cultural practices match, for the most part, the types of activities that take place at church. The styles of music are familiar to me; I can easily make a batch of vanilla cupcakes for the Easter party; when I’m called on to read a passage of Scripture, I can do that smoothly and without embarrassment. If I often feel like a misfit, how might church feel to people whose cultures, lifestyles, and family structures fall far outside the boundaries that church draws? If we want those people to feel welcome, do we ask them to adapt to our structures? Or do we ask ourselves how we might move toward genuine inclusiveness? Are we willing to rethink men’s and women’s ministries to accommodate those who identify as non-binary? Are we willing to make Sunday School look less like traditional school to help embrace children for whom school is alienating?

It’s a long road ahead, and there are no simple solutions. Historically, church has been slow to adjust to social change. Churches remained racially segregated long after federal law mandated integration of schools. But it bothers me that I have often felt more easily accepted and included in secular circles than I have at church, when it should be just the opposite. Of course, church should sometimes make me uncomfortable, but it should make me uncomfortable because I feel convicted to love more fully, to show greater compassion, to live in deeper communion with God. Not because I can’t find a social group to join.

Christianity · Politics

On Santa Claus, Jesus, and Trump

Shortly before Christmas, when I was four, I challenged my mother on Santa Claus. I asked (as I imagine many children do), “If he’s fat, how can he fit down the chimney?” My mother answered, “I guess he’s magic.” The answer was acceptable enough. He rode a flying sleigh around the world in one night and evidently had a cadre of elves who could secure thousands of Barbie vans and Baby-Come-Back dolls without ever making themselves visible at the mall. I guessed he probably was magic. And if my mother said it, it was true. This was the woman who once spent ten minutes at a grocery store bakery counter insisting that she be allowed to pay for a doughnut the cashier had forgotten to charge her for the previous day.

Two years later, when a friend told me at a sleepover, “Santa Claus is really your parents,” I was disproportionately (although not uncharacteristically) worked up. Several years later, I took up the issue again with my mother:

“But I ASKED you about it. I gave you a chance to tell me, and you just said, ‘I guess he’s magic.'”

“Well, you knew we didn’t believe in magic.”

“WHAT?? Mom. We believed Noah put ALL THE ANIMALS on the ark, that three men were thrown into a furnace and didn’t burn, and that a pack of lions’ mouths were sealed so they wouldn’t eat a guy who spent the night in their den.”

“That wasn’t magic. That was God.”

Okay, yes. I had been taught the distinction. I knew God wasn’t magic. Still, for a four-year-old raised to believe in the supernatural, accepting Santa’s ability to navigate chimneys as magic is not a giant leap.

Believing in the supernatural became increasingly hard for me as I got older, as deeply ingrained as it was. In high school, I was terrified of looking stupid, and I felt, increasingly, that talking about the Bible as literal truth made me look that way. In college, as a literature student, I began to see the broader picture -the horrific damage that had been done to people and cultures in the name of missions work, the warring among religious groups over the power to control the narrative, and the many world views that felt as real and true to the people who held them as Christianity felt to me. It became harder, and less desirable, for me to believe that ours was the only truth. I would have preferred to be selective and piece together my own theology, but I was deeply afraid to do that, or even to raise hard questions. Christianity was the core of my identity, and I feared that if I pulled one thread, it would all unravel for me.

In my early adulthood, I made a firm decision to take the Bible, in its entirety, at face value. I said to my mom, “Maybe we’re wrong. But so what? If it turns out in the end that none of it was true, I won’t be sorry to have lived my life striving to be like Christ.” And there I remained, for many years. I clung to Jesus, his words, and his life as the core of my faith. I taught Sunday School. I served in church leadership. And as for all the issues that continued to make me uncomfortable, I hoped and trusted that if God was who I thought He was, He had it figured out and I would have to live with not knowing the answers.

And then it was 2016. And the Republicans put forward a candidate who was “different.” For awhile it was funny, like the idea of Arnold Schwartzenegger being governor of California. Then it became serious. He made anti-immigrant, anti-Muslim, and blatantly sexist statements. He called people losers and mocked them like a seven-year-old, he lied openly, and he talked about wanting to punch protesters in the face and “joked” that he would pay legal fees for supporters who did. It made sense that a few isolated, angry white men yearning for pre-civil-rights days would relish the idea of Trump as president. But I genuinely expected that Christians would be at the front of the line speaking out against his behavior. It seemed obvious. He was everything we are called not to be. How do we claim to promote Christian values and even consider placing someone openly hateful in our highest position of power?

Then the audio recording came out -the one where he bragged that he forces himself on women because he can. Because he’s a star. And that should have sealed it. But it didn’t. Supporters came out in his defense. Christians compared him to King David, using his sexually violent language to validate him as God’s choice. He claimed he could walk out on 5th Avenue and shoot someone and people would still support him. And by this point, he seemed to be right.

I stood by as people already skeptical of Christianity had their beliefs confirmed. Evangelical Christianity was aligning itself with hate and claiming “conservative values” as its justification. Muslims, atheists, Buddhists, agnostics -everyone but Christians -spoke out for the vulnerable, for the poor, for the oppressed. Christians defended, rationalized, ignored.

Even though I suspected he might win, when the numbers came out -81% of Evangelicals voting for Trump  -I was stunned and devastated. And in the next few months, I circled all the way back to the beginning: to the ark, the lions’ den, a childhood firmly anchored in a loving, merciful, gracious God who so loved the world that He sacrificed His only son. And I wondered what happened. I had chosen to embrace the whole, despite doubts and apparent contradictions, because it all felt worth it if it led me to a life of love, compassion, and kindness. If that was the core, I could live with some discomfort and tension. But the election and all that led up to it suggested that it was not the core. Reeling from what felt like the sudden ripping out of my life’s foundation, I pulled the thread. As I feared, it has left me unraveled and a little lost.

I have been told that I just don’t understand the big picture, that I’m too narrow-minded, that I’m just being influenced by people. I’ve been reminded that I’m studying education, not theology, which I suppose implies that I have no business suggesting that anything is wrong. And maybe it’s true. Maybe I thought I understood the major tenets of Christianity and I never actually did. Maybe a faithful Christian just accepts the assurances of Christian leaders that this is all worth it for a conservative Supreme Court, or that we shouldn’t judge each other for our political choices. But none of that helps me to know what to do now.

I miss my church and the people I came to know and love. I miss feeling grounded in a faith community. I miss being certain. But I don’t know how to be a part of it right now, or how not to. It helps to know I’m not alone -that there are others, some who actually do study theology, who are equally shaken and also struggling to find a place. And I trust that we eventually will. We will either unite around our core and find reconciliation, or we will crumble, and I can’t believe we will let ourselves crumble.

But even if we do, it doesn’t have to be over. Learning the truth about Santa was a necessary step in my coming to understand Christmas as a celebration of God’s gift to the world. Maybe we’re experiencing something similar right now, on a much larger scale. Maybe we will let it all unravel and slowly put it back together again. And maybe we’ll start with God’s love, mercy, and grace and work from there.