Come As You Are

For us, the believers, the Jesus-people, the bible is not a book of history and rules. Our God is not a God of hate.

I am a Christian.

It’s hard for me to say that in a public forum, just those four words. Usually, if it comes up in conversation, I push out a dozen or more words in a rush: I’m a Christian, but I’m a peace and justice Christian, a love everyone Christian, and if you want to know about my faith I’d love to tell you, but if you don’t want to to talk about it, that’s cool too.

Here is the one of the saddest things I have ever heard after I reveal that I follow Jesus: Wow, I never would have guessed you were a Christian. You seem so nice.

How’s that for a punch in the guts?

I’m not actually that nice. I have a terrible temper, a tendency toward resentment, and a penchant for blue language that’s well documented here on my blog. I’ve done drugs, drunk alcohol to excess, stolen, gossiped, hurt people, taken more than my share, cheated, lied, and been, in general, a deeply flawed human being.

Flawed like Paul, who wrote in Romans 7:15, “I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate.” Broken, screwed up, sinful. Human.

What’s “nice” about me is, I know I’m not better than anyone. (Actually, sometimes I think I’m better than someone, and sometimes I feel inferior. This humility thing is a challenge.) That’s what people experience as niceness from Christians: if we don’t start beating them over the head with our big, leather-bound, gold-embossed bibles and telling them how utterly screwed they are, how messed up, evil, and doomed, they experience us as nice.

Folks, something’s wrong when people hear the word Christian and their first instinct is to duck.

Some Christians are dominating the media with the message that our faith is all about following a moral script, and that most of the items on that script have to do with what we do with our genitals, and when, and with whom. How sad, to reduce our collective story to one of penises and pregnancies. Our story began when Abraham went on a journey and continues now, a story of extravagant love, the tale of a God who pursues us, in all our brokenness, throughout history. God is not waiting for us to get better, or to get perfect. God is not waiting for anything.

For us, the believers, the Jesus-people, the bible is not a book of history and rules. Our God is not a God of hate. We’re living in a story that began with the people in the bible and continues now. The bible is alive, our faith is alive, and we are privileged to participate, not as servants but as the sons and daughters of God. We are Deborah, David, Abraham, Mary, Paul, James, Rebekah, Abigail. Flawed, and beloved of the divine.

We don’t have all the answers. We don’t even know most of the questions. That’s OK, because Jesus never said, Go forth and be perfect in every way, and then force all the other people to be perfect in the ways that you deem right, making certain nobody ever does anything with their genitals that seems icky to you!

Not in my bible. Jesus said, First, love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and next, love each other. (I paraphrased that from Matthew 22.)

Love. A big party, a festival of love, and everyone is invited. Everyone. Pull up a chair and sit down. This is the ultimate come-as-you-are.

Doing Church in the New Millennium

Church exists in culture and is populated by fallible humans and God is not up in heaven, expecting us to know stuff we haven’t yet learned. Just like you wouldn’t give your hungry child a stone, you wouldn’t expect your kindergartner to do calculus.

They’re not narcissists.

They’re not shallow.

They’re not fundamentally broken.

They’re not different from us, the Xers and Boomers who fill most of the leadership positions in Christian churches.

The Millennials are the vanguard of our new, digitally-driven culture.

As an Xer who has embraced digital culture more readily and more fully than most people my age, I inhabit a front row seat from which I view the present cultural shift, and I understand why some Christians are afraid. Sometimes, the life of millennials seems weird, incompatible with our traditions of togetherness, with the investments we have made in buildings, property, tables, and chairs: spaces and tools with which we gather, face-to-face, in a tradition broadly similar to that of the people of the early church. Culture is changing and that is never not scary.

On the other hand, on some Sunday mornings, church doesn’t seem as relevant to me as Meet the Press or Melissa Harris-Perry. Church-world doesn’t always feel like it touches my everyday world, in spite of the fact that I am now a 40-something in leadership. I wonder, how will we keep doing church if we don’t feel connected the way we used to, or the way we hope to?

But consider that the church has survived;

  • Communism
  • The Enlightenment
  • Literacy
  • The rise of cities
  • The Middle Ages
  • Cars
  • Suburbia
  • Westward expansion
  • Feminism
  • Capitalism
  • The Protestant Reformation
  • The Civil Rights Movement
  • Television

…and so much more. Christianity has survived all the things that have happened in the past 2,000ish years, and Christianity will survive digital culture and the Millennials. Someone, somewhere is always declaring the death of Christianity, and every generation wails about the incapacity of the next.

That’s OK. Good, even, except that it too often reflects an attitude that is closed-minded due to fear. What I want to shout from the (virtual) rooftops is, no matter how wild this gets, God is doing God’s thing. We’re going to struggle and argue. Some of us might throw chairs and get very, very upset, and we’re going to say things we regret, and we’re also going to be brilliant and ultimately (probably often, if we are paying attention), we will see the face of God.

Is this going to hurt? Yes. It’s going to hurt because as God is baptizing individual people, God is also baptizing our communities, our families, and our very traditions.

People, baptism hurts. This is the refiner’s fire. We have volunteered to be transformed, and God does not take that lightly. The old has passed away.

We are often confused about what it means to be transformed because we humans can’t do it. We understand reformation because we are (in some limited way) capable of reformation, but transformation is not even tangentially related to reformation.

Let’s say I have a table. It’s a broken down, sad, ugly old thing. It wobbles, and one of the legs has come off. The top has a crack in it, the apron is all gouged up, and the whole thing has water damage. I decide to fix up my table so I can bring it into my house. I go out to my garage and I glue the crack and clamp it. I add new hardware to secure all the legs, replace the apron, and get busy sanding it until it’s smooth. Finally, I stain that table until it’s so shiny is nearly glows in the dark. I take my table to the dining room and my whole family stands around and admires it. It is gorgeous. I have reformed my table, and it is the handsomest specimen of table you could ever hope to see.

But it’s still a table.

God has a table, too, and it’s just as ugly and sad as my table was, and maybe God wants it to be a beautiful, gleaming table, but God is not limited to the perceivable possibilities the way I am. Perhaps God will turn the table into a bird, or a droplet of water, or a universe.

Ouch, right? We think we’re tables, and mighty fine ones, at that! Who are these youngsters, these twenty-something millennials, to question our table-ness?

Knock knock, maybe they are the voice of God? And maybe not. I don’t claim to know. God doesn’t deal in certainty (much as we yearn for God to do just that). God deals in mystery, faith, and what C.S. Lewis called the Deep Magic. God shows up in the desert, where there are no landmarks and we have no idea where we might find our next water.

The incredible wringing of hands that has happened in the blogosphere (launched by Rachel Held Evans at CNN’s Belief Blog) is exactly what we must do, though some people may wish to take a breath and two steps back (If your God can’t withstand a culture shift, get a bigger God).

Church exists in culture and is populated by fallible humans and God is not up in heaven, expecting us to know stuff we haven’t yet learned. Just like you wouldn’t give your hungry child a stone, you wouldn’t expect your kindergartner to do calculus.

God knows we are bound by the traditions of our faith. We need them because they provide us with a sense of belonging and continuity, but they are for us. God doesn’t need to see us all line up in the sanctuary to share bread and juice. God knows God’s place in the universe and our reminders don’t make God more secure or more content. God is not in the ritual, nor does participating in such ceremonies give us special access to the presence of the divine. God is God, God is love, and God is everywhere. The rituals of worship, communion, foot washing, baptism, and all the rest exist because we have wild monkey minds. We need gestures of the body and practices of the mind to help us show up for our relationships with God and each other.

God is not the rituals. God is God, and God won’t change.

But everything else might change. God might make into us something entirely new. God does not need our protection and God is not afraid. God is doing what God has always done: pursuing us. How do we keep Millennials (and others) in the church? Simple. We follow Jesus. We do not attract new people; Jesus does that. We are not transforming ourselves; Jesus is doing that. We are not creating church; we are the church that Jesus built and is continually rebuilding.

So we follow. We pray. We practice togetherness (talk, argue, shout, share, cry, lament, laugh, sing, teach, learn, and kiss the wee babes) in ways old and new. We experiment. We unclench our fists (my church, my traditions, my faith) and look around. We invite and we include, and when we screw up we say so. When church disappoints us we speak out, and when we see the church disappoint others we sit up and take notice, and we go to that place and search for Jesus and share the love that God has lavished upon us. We revisit Micah 6:8 until it is engraved upon us.

He has told you, O mortal, what is good;
and what does the Lord require of you
but to do justice, and to love kindness,
and to walk humbly with your God?

So simple, but we resist. I will be the shiniest table! Make of me a beautiful table, Oh God! Hush and follow, says God. I will make of you. I will do with you. I promise.

We meditate upon Galations 5:1, which says, “For freedom Christ has set us free. Stand firm, therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery.” We have not been set free in Christ to build institutions or to “win souls for Christ” or to do anything. We have not been set free to follow rules, and we most certainly have not been set free so that we might hit people in the head with our bibles in the name of Christ.

Simple freedom.

Glorious, wild, extravagant freedom, a gift, given freely. God does not seek our slavish devotion to rules, but our exuberant devotion to the person of God and the way of Jesus. We walk together, with God, and with one another, and the walking is the thing we are doing, and God is unrolling history as we walk.

God does not need our protection and God is not afraid. God is doing what God has always done: pursuing us, God’s own, God’s beloved.

Let’s let God catch us.

 

All Bible verses are from the New Revised Standard Version.

Do you know you’re a bitch?

The Bible is the ancient holy book of my tradition. It’s not a simple book of history and rules. It isn’t dead words on a page. It is a living book, an ongoing story, and as a believer, who am I to limit it? As God said to Job, “Who do you think you are, puny human? I set the universe spinning, and you want to tell me what’s what? Pfffffft.”

During the summer of 1992, when my boyfriend (the one I later married, had two children with, and then divorced) and I had our annual I-hate-you-we’re-breaking-up-forever fight, I started going to a Bible study. I had a very rough relationship with faith in my late teens and early twenties. I grew up in an Evangelical Protestant church and while I believed in God, I struggled with the dogma in that religion, but I couldn’t walk away from it. I wanted faith, but I didn’t know where to find people who wouldn’t hit me in the head with a Bible.

So I dabbled here and there, and I went to a Bible study for young adults that was hosted by a large, non-denominational church, and it seemed OK and I got a little bit comfortable, and as so often happens in these circumstances, someone brought up the topic of abortion, and someone said that women should practice self-control, and someone said it’s baby murder, and you know how it goes. Even if you were never at a Bible study with a group of people between the ages of 18 and 25 who think they know everything and believe they have an ancient, divinely-inspired text that backs them up, you know how it goes, and everyone was oh-so-right and oh-so-indignantly-angry at the loose women with their unwanted fetuses and I didn’t get up and go to my little silver Toyota and drive home like I should have done.

When there was a pause in the self-righteousness, I said, “It’s not so simple.”

Every head swiveled on its stalk of neck, every pair of eyes stared at me, slow up, slow down (Is she a slut? How did we not notice?), and then a female voice rose, a voice trained for a lifetime for exactly this moment, “It is simple. It’s a baby. You can’t kill a baby.”

“I don’t agree,” I said, wading in a little further, still not turning the key on the door of the Toyota, still not entering that safe womb of stale cigarette smoke and discarded diet Coke cans. “Women have abortions for complex reasons, and you can’t just let them die from unsafe abortions. It’s not like…”

The female voice again, this time louder, shouting me down, and joined by others, “Legal abortion just makes murder easy for women!”

More voices, a confusion of anger, and I found my way to my legs, my left hand wrapped around the handle of my purse, and I worked toward the door. Amid the choruses of, “We’ll pray for you!” and “Read Jeremiah 1:5!” and “You’re no Christian!” I heard that female voice above the others.

She asked, “Do you know you’re a bitch?”

I didn’t answer her, not even a raised middle-finger as I finally managed to slip through the door, partly because I couldn’t wait to enter the warm dark of my car, and partly because I was stunned to hear the word bitch in that context. If ever there were people who wouldn’t say shit if they had a mouthful, it was the Evangelical Protestants of my youth. Maybe these were a different breed, or maybe I was a spectacularly terrible specimen of sin: the abortion apologist in the Bible study. Whatever the reason, it’s an interesting question.

On every topic, someone, somewhere, is bound to believe that I have taken the bitch stance. I have taken the part of the bitches. I am a bitch.

Misogynist implications of the word bitch aside, I can live with it because worse would be if someone could describe me as milquetoast, boring, or (shudder) sweet. I care about things. I stand for something. I hope I am open to learning, to hearing new perspectives, and to engaging in civil debate.

I don’t ever want to be a person who knows what’s right. I want to be a person who wrestles with the truth. I hold rightness loosely, prepared for new information and new experiences that might shift my understanding.

The Bible is the ancient holy book of my tradition. It’s not a simple book of history and rules. It isn’t dead words on a page. It is a living book, an ongoing story, and as a believer, who am I to limit such a book? As God said to Job, “Who do you think you are, puny human? I set the universe spinning, and you want to tell me what’s what? Pfffffft.”

Rightness is tempting. A good/bad, either/or universe is easier to live in than one that requires careful thought, big mistakes, and the uneasy state of I don’t know. I’m sure it feels great, being in with the in-crowd, knowing all the right answers, and being so very very right about all the things. Imagine the scene in that Bible study after I left: they probably joined hands and spoke prayers out for awhile, in the Christian key of just, as in, “Lord, just protect Adrienne, and Lord, we just ask that you guide her and show her the error of her ways. Father, we just ask that you help us to love her in spite of her sin.” Then, perhaps a few praise hymns to get the world back into its straight lines: bad is bad, right is right, the ground below and heavens above.

What didn’t happen is, none of us listened. None of us learned. We didn’t struggle or connect. How sad, to lose such an opportunity. How much sadder, that we are missing those opportunities everyday.

Sadder still, many Christians seem to have missed the central message of our holy book: Love. Love God, love people, be loved. When love gets hard, love more. When love feels impossible, keep loving. When love is tiring, God will give you more energy for love. Love until someone hates you for it, and then keep loving.

Love on, bitches.