On the Days When I’m Not a Christian

So, Arkansas is the latest state to enact an abomination at the behest of the Religious Right:

“The Republican-controlled House and Senate voted to override GOP Gov. Asa Hutchinson’s veto of the measure, which prohibits doctors from providing gender confirming hormone treatment, puberty blockers or surgery to anyone under 18 years old, or from referring them to other providers for the treatment.”

The purpose of this post is not to go into exactly how horrifically abominable this law is, although anyone with a heart for kids learning to be and love themselves as they were created should clearly see it. But this is just one in a long string of abominations the church has foisted upon the world.

And honestly, on days like today, and increasingly most days, where I really feel like the label Christian itself has become an abomination with which I no longer want to be associated, I can only think of two possible options for why the church has turned into such a dumpster fire of an institution:

  1. Jesus really was an evil dude who proposed an evil religion based on subjugating non-white people, toxic patriarchy, and oppression of anyone who didn’t conform to the norms of that religion (especially LGBTQIA+ folks).
  2. Jesus is either so exceptionally weak as to be irrelevant, or completely non-existent.

Earlier today, this was really where I was. Maybe all of the things I thought were God were really just myself? Maybe this is just a bunch of made-up nonsense that has no relevance to my life.

Maybe.

But then another possibility came to me. Perhaps, as I have experienced, Jesus wasn’t fooling around when he said the church was the body of Christ. That the entire purpose of the church was not some fools’ errand search for perfection, but instead its purpose was to be a vehicle for getting people in touch with their very real humanity. A humanity that is, at its core, one with Christ and all of Creation.

I was always taught that the church was supposed to be the moral exemplar to the world. That if only we could just be entirely sanctified, we would draw people to Jesus. That the most important thing is getting rid of those pesky sins, and calling others to get rid of their sins.

And then I never saw it happen. More than thirty years as a Christian and I have never seen the church be much of a moral exemplar of anything. Instead, it has been a place of condemnation, of subjugation, of sexual assault, of pedophilia, of greed, and of hate. Just like the “world” it was supposed to transcend.

And the more I pondered this, the more I recognized that expecting the church to be anything other than what the world is is untenable. The church cannot be any more or any less than what humanity itself is, any more than a rock can choose to be a tree or a tree can choose to be a star.

And while I absolutely think that the church is capable of acting in ways that are better for itself, other people, and the entire world, I believe this of all people regardless of whether they share a common tradition or belief system with me. And over time, I do believe that the entirety of human consciousness is moving in a more enlightened direction, despite devastating setbacks.

But history shows us that the church is quite capable of intense evil. The crusades, the Doctrine of Discovery, the genocide of native Americans, slavery, Jim Crow, and the continuing legacy of white supremacy in the church make that plain. But then history also shows us that the Communist Soviet Union, People’s Republic of China, and Cambodia killed tens of millions. Humanity is quite capable of atrocities regardless of belief.

So then, what is the use of the church? What is the use of a faith in Christ?

On this point, I can only lean into experience and agree with Julian of Norwich. The purpose of the church, and any healthy faith, is to proclaim to the world “All will be well.” That we are not alone in this struggle to be human. That though at our zoomed in level there are plenty of worries for the day, when zoomed out to 13.7 billion years of universal history, goodness is unfolding and prevailing.

This is not something I can convince anyone is true. But it is something that I believe I have seen to be true. Not with my eyes, but non-dually with the eyes of my heart. And that’s enough for me.

For today.

A Lamentation

How long, Lord

Will we have to see
Asian women killed in their workplace
Black Christians gunned down at Bible study
Black men and women murdered at the hands of bad cops
“Good cops”, police unions, politicians, and regular citizens covering for those bad cops
Children hiding in terror at an approaching gunman
Those same children dying in terror
Matthew Shepard beaten, killed, and tied to a fence
Emmett Till’s lynched body in a coffin

How long, Lord

We are tired
Tired of a system that values whiteness over humanness
Tired of politicians who inflame hatred to get votes
Tired of inhumanity directed at people fleeing violence and poverty
Tired of Black lives not mattering
Tired of Asian lives not mattering
Tired of Latino lives not mattering
Tired of Muslim lives not mattering
Tired of Native lives not mattering
You see where this is going?

How long, Lord

We wonder if you can hear us
We wonder if you are too weak to fix things
We wonder if you care
We wonder if you are even there

How long, Lord

On days like today, where hope is hiding, all we have is our fears
Our fist-shaking anger
Our pain
Our worry
Our sadness
Our tears that won’t stop falling

How long, Lord, until you make yourself visible?

By What We Have Left Undone…

I just had a bit of an epiphany. I used to get really defensive when people would say that Christians are intolerant (“but but not all Christians…”). But to be honest, Christianity IS intolerant. It IS white supremacist. It IS hostile to people outside its mainstream, most especially LGBTQ+ folks.

The reality is that the Church is absolutely guilty of everything it is accused of being.

And I know, because I’m a part of one of these denominations, that there are “progressive” parts of the Church that are less all of these things. But we’re a small part of a dying Church that is dying even faster than the rest of it. And again, we’re only “less” of those things.

I guess for me personally, I can’t quit the Christian thing. It pointed me to Jesus both as a way of life and as a divine love to be shared with God and with everyone and everything in the universe. But I also don’t think I can just point the finger at “other” Christians. My Church is racist. My Church fails to welcome those fleeing persecution. My Church disavows people because of who they are and who they love. My Church voted for Donald Trump twice.

So all I can do is hold this in tension (or non-dually, if you will). The same Church that points to a divine love that is greater than even it understands also wounds people deeply.

One of my favorite prayers in the Christian liturgy is the confession of sin. I think that on behalf of the Church of which I am a part, this is my prayer today:

“Most merciful God,
we confess that we have sinned against you
in thought, word, and deed,
by what we have done,
and by what we have left undone.
We have not loved you with our whole heart;
we have not loved our neighbors as ourselves.
We are truly sorry and we humbly repent.
For the sake of your Son Jesus Christ,
have mercy on us and forgive us;
that we may delight in your will,
and walk in your ways,
to the glory of your Name. Amen.”

This is my prayer for both myself and my church in this time.

Missing Voices

Twice before in my life, someone that I really didn’t know in person passed away and I really, truly grieved.

Nine years ago, Michael Spencer, the Internet Monk, passed away. Michael was the first Christian I ever came across (solely on the internet, in this case), who was real about his doubts, his struggles, and his non-canonical evangelical faith. He taught me about a grace deeper than I could have ever imagined, a faith more ecumenical than I thought possible, and a Christ more mystical than could be imagined. His passing left a deep hole in my faith that I am still struggling to fill to this day. He was a great mentor to me, even though I never met him. And I grieved.

The next year, Steve Jobs passed away. Computers, specifically Apple computers, had helped this shy, awkward teenager engage with the world. They had given me my career. And they had brought delight. While Jobs was nowhere near as important to me as Michael Spencer, his impact on my life was such that I truly grieved as well. Even though I had never even seen him in person.

Rachel Held Evans’ passing is proving to be similar. I am truly grieving.

Looking back at my life, I really feel that Michael Spencer’s death cast me adrift. In the four years prior, I had seen the faith that I had received upon becoming a Christian in college radically transformed due to some wonderful teaching by Richard Rohr, Brian McLaren, Rob Bell, Michael Spencer, and others. I began looking for something deeper, more authentic, and more connected to the historic church than what I had been taught.

But then Michael Spencer passed away, and I kind of turned my faith off. I didn’t do it consciously, but I think the unfairness of him passing away in his fifties, just as he was starting to become a voice of great good in the church, unconsciously impacted me and caused me to focus on other things. I still went to church (for the most part), but I really didn’t care. And most of the time I actively tuned it out.

So this year came, and so did God. He reawakened me.

Now, anyone who knows me well would know that when my faith is growing, it means I will have a stack of spiritual books that I am reading and another list of books that I would like to read. So on to the pile was added Richard Rohr and Thomas Merton, but I also picked up Searching for Sunday by Rachel Held Evans.

While my faith switch had been turned off all of those years, I would periodically read an article by RHE where she excoriated evangelicalism for this or that. I enjoyed the skewering of conservative selective morality that she did with her A Year of Biblical Womanhood (though I never read it). And I respected her as someone who was authentically serving as a voice for the Nones and Dones who were leaving the church. As I kind of had already done, at least mentally.

But it wasn’t until my “reawakening” this year that I started to actually listen to what she had to say. I was first introduced to her on The Liturgists Podcast. And her openness about her doubts, and her struggles, and the fact that so much of modern Christianity makes so little sense really moved me. And yet she still believed. Which moved me more.

Searching for Sunday was a deep affirmation of where I was with my faith. My faith was flawed, but it was beautiful. Doubt, and darkness, and uncertainty were not a sign of weakness, but in fact the path toward God. And she told everything with such an authentic voice, and such a gentle wit, that I could not help but devour the book. Even at the expense of Richard Rohr’s Universal Christ (and if you know me, you know I LOVE Richard Rohr).

And this is why I grieve even though I never knew her. Never attended a conference featuring her. Only had the most basic contact with what she had to teach. I grieve because there was a prophet in our midst. And I slept through it all. I grieve because her love for all of the people who are absolutely fucking done with the church has become my love. And now our prophet will speak no more.

I will miss you, Rachel Held Evans, even though I only knew you from afar. I will devour your books over the coming weeks and months and I’m sure I will grow because of them in my love for Christ, the church, and all of the people who the church has done such a bad job serving. Thank you for a life well lived, and a love well given.

Post-Post-Evangelical?

So, wow, Rip van Winkle has awoken. Almost five years since I last posted here, not only am I still alive, I’m still grappling with my “does not quite fit in” faith. Especially after the last year of our nation’s history, that faith has a lot more dents in it.

The last time I left off here, I had passed through the waters of the evangelicalism of my post-conversion days and dipped my toes into the roaring rapids of the emerging church, only to find myself landing in the not-quite comfortable eddy of post-evangelicalism. And then life happened (three young-but-now-getting grown-up kids). And then the election of 2016 happened.

I spent most of the first week after the election listening to punk rock.

You see, everything that I had learned about Jesus as a young convert and then re-learned as my wineskins were refreshed in the last decade was tossed out the window by my fellow -evangelicals in their zeal to defend the last few pearls of Christendom to which they clutched.

Michael Gerson, in his excellent article in this month’s Atlantic (read it all), sums up the underlying problem better than I could:

The moral convictions of many evangelical leaders have become a function of their partisan identification. This is not mere gullibility; it is utter corruption. Blinded by political tribalism and hatred for their political opponents, these leaders can’t see how they are undermining the causes to which they once dedicated their lives. Little remains of a distinctly Christian public witness.

Gerson goes on to give an excellent history of evangelicalism in this country dating to the period before the civil war, and states that because of his own experiences with the faith, that he is “hesistant to abandon the word evangelical.”

Lets just say I’m not quite so hesitant. Honestly, at this point, I’m not quite sure that evangelicalism is worth saving. But with the crash-and-burn that happened to the emerging church, I’m also not sure what the alternatives are. What I can say at this point is that for the longest time I took up the definition of post-evangelical where the post- doing the work meant “moving beyond and embracing something greater than.” But I suspect that now I should really call myself a post-post-evangelical, with the new post- stating that I sadly have to reject -evangelicalism in all its forms altogether.

Which is funny, because I currently attend an evangelical church that I have no intentions of leaving. But more on that later.

The Prison

Imprisoned.

So much of my life feels like it is on the wrong side of the bars. Perhaps my whole life.

When I was younger, and still “on fire for God,” I was certain that I would make a difference. Lead a church. Plant a ministry among the urban poor. Live a life of radical discipleship. Have joy.

Now, I’m just a failed Christian. Trapped inside the bars. Bars of depression which rob me of joy. Bars of responsibility which limit the choices we can make as a family. Bars related to the choices I have made in my life which have foreclosed avenues that I might have taken at 25. Bars of failed expectations which prevent me from being satisfied with the life I have been given.

What do I do with this? I’m older, and hopefully a bit wiser, and no longer believe that I need to be Mr. Super Radical Christian in order to win God’s favor (something that is unwinnable, since there is no need to win it). But I still have this nagging feeling that I have allowed myself to become imprisoned and it is only myself who forecloses those avenues.

What is worse, I worry that I am building the bars around my wife and my children as well.

Lord Christ, who came to proclaim release to the captives.
Release me.
Grant me vision to know
the things in our life which have become bars
and the things which are gifts from you.
Break down the bars which separate us from the kingdom you are birthing in this world.
Heal my pain, my sorrow, and my apathy.
Bring life to this old, failed Christian.
Lord have mercy.
Christ have mercy.
Lord have mercy.
Amen.

Failure

I have something to confess.

I’m a Christian failure.

I worry about just about everything. I am far from Christian when someone cuts me off on the freeway. I can be hot headed at times. I get depressed relatively easily. I don’t pray very much, and when I do, it’s rarely meaningful. I’m not a very good husband a lot of the time. I’m not very patient with my kids. I think I might be with the rich young ruler in walking away sadly if Jesus called me to sell all my stuff. I don’t give enough to the poor, or my church. Sometimes, the pain in the world makes me just want to shut everything off and play Angry Birds.

I think I’m exactly where God wants me.

Listen, I have absolutely no idea how to follow God. I don’t know how to get close to him, although I know many techniques to try. I don’t know how this whole thing is going to turn out at the end of my life. I don’t even know if things are going to get any better with the whole faith experiment I’ve been a part of for the past two decades.

I really, really suck.

And yet, there’s something liberating about coming to terms with who I am. I can stop trying to keep it all together because the fact is, I’m broken and will continue to be. I can stop believing that if I just do the right things, I will get closer to God and become the follower that I’ve wanted to be since college. I can stop pretending that I have any idea whatsoever about how to stop sinning. I can finally give all of the trying over to God.

I can’t fix myself. I also can’t prevent the world from turning my life into its own personal dumping ground. But what I can do is dive into the ocean of grace. My only trust can be in the One who took on all of my garbage (and that of the entire world) on the cross, knowing that we would keep heaping it upon him even after he did it. Not in myself. Not in my spiritual disciplines. Not in the five points to becoming a better fill in the blank.

So I’m a failure. But that just means that I need to bring my sorry, failure self back to the cross on a daily basis, knowing that the One who died there waits for me, completely accepts me, and will carry me through my failures to a future that I cannot perceive.

Amen. Christ have mercy.

Creep, Part 2

I’m finally, ever so imperceptibly, making my way through Michael Spencer’s posthumous masterpiece, Mere Churchianity. In chapter 11, he drops this bombshell:

Jesus was not clearing the road so I could ride victoriously through life. He was becoming the road that would carry me through all the garbage, falls, failures, and disasters that were the inevitable results of my existence. In trying to make myself lovable, I had been distancing myself from true love. In pretending to be a leading candidate for the religious life, I was abandoning the life of grace. In seeking to be a good Christian, I was deserting the truth that there is no gospel for “good” Christians, because the Lamb of God was nailed to an altar for those who are not good and who are no good at pretending to be good.

Grace is far too scandalous for this world, even for Christians. It’s much easier for us to construct moral systems which make us feel like we’re getting it all together, rather than to just accept who we are and then let Christ’s grace wash over us.

If I can simply manage to live this truth and impart it to my family and those around me, then what more can I ask of this life?

Creep

But I’m a creep,
I’m a weirdo,
What the hell am I doing here?
I don’t belong here.

— Radiohead, Creep

I have a confession to make.

I have a spiritual self-esteem problem.

No, it’s not that I think that I’m too much of a loser for God’s grace to reach me. It’s not related to any belief that I’m not doing “enough” to be in God’s kingdom. As my faith nears the end of its second decade, I am more secure in the knowledge of God’s “tidal wave of Grace” (which has washed over even me) than I ever have been in my life.

But I’m a creep, I’m a weirdo.

It’s gotten to the point that I want to stop the sermons. Play some iPhone games in the service. Listen to some music. Watch football. Whatever.

It’s just more stuff that I can’t do, and I can’t stand to hear anymore.

I’m a husband and father of three. I have an incredibly responsible job with a longer commute than I would like. Oh, and the economy is lousy so there’s a lot more pressure to keep the balls in the air.

And it’s left me with a gap. A gap between the journey that I would like to be on and the one I find myself with. A gap between my desires to live into God’s kingdom and the reality of a life with very little space for that.

Oh, and did I mention that there are (at least) four other people who have a vote in what direction my life goes in (and rightly so)?

So I want to turn it off.

Stop listening.

Just be content with being ethical at work, loving to my family, and a stable provider (all important things). But no more.

And yet I still feel like a loser. A spiritual half-empty glass.

The stakes are higher now. My oldest son has begun his journey toward Christ (praise be to God). I desperately want him (and the two younger ones) to walk beside Christ the way I envisioned myself doing when I came out of college. A way which seems so thoroughly buried by life that it seems to have disappeared from view. But what I model to him now will become his faith (or lack thereof) later. And I don’t like the model.

So I continue to go to church. But when I’m there, I can’t help thinking: “I’m a creep, I’m a weirdo. What the hell am I doing here? I don’t belong here.”