Just as you are …

31 Jan

beliefsI have a confession to make … I am a Christian.  I am sure if you have been paying attention at all, you are well aware of that.  However, many new friends seem to be surprised when they learn this.  I remember one person, after coming by our house for a homeschool event, commented how surprised she was to find the kids “memory verses” up on the wall.  Most of these friends are surprised because they think I am just too nice.

Now before those of you who are Christians go and get offended, although I have gotten a little twitchy over this sentiment myself, consider the perception the “world” has of the Christian community.  Inside the doors we look at our activities as Kingdom building and grace-filled, however, the message projected often has the air of judgement, condemnation and condescension.  While, I am not going to defend every person that wears a cross (just like I wouldn’t generalize about any member of any population) I will say that most folks I know within the church don’t intend to communicate this message.

I have to wonder where we went awry … Has the church always been askew?  While I think of the church’s active involvement in the abolition of slavery, public education, healthcare and social reform.  It is impossible to overlook the darker moments of The Inquisition, The Crusades, the age of exploration and Puritanical Witch Trials.  It seems that there has forever been a dual message communicated by the church – one of nurturing and love, and another of judgement and wrath.

A friend recently shared a blog post with me that really brought the face of the modern church to mind.  In her blog, Pearls and Grace, Sibi Riffer writes about “The New Church Lady.”  While the title immediately brings to mind Dana Carvey’s SNL Church Lady character, you quickly learn that this new church lady ditches the judgement and embraces the grace.  Riffer discusses the judgement she faced from the church, and how that hurt had kept her away.  I could relate to so much of what she wrote, and couldn’t agree more with her perspective of what it meant to be a Christian in the world today.  One of my favorite quotes was, “[A new church lady] understands that to become the Proverbs 31 woman- you can’t skip chapters 1-30.”

For myself, I always yearned to be at church when I was little.  I felt at home in sanctuaries dancing in stained-glassed light and flickering candle flames.  I embraced Bible stories and felt cozy wrapped in the melodies of old hymns.  As I got older though, more and more frequently I was cornered (literally) by classmates demanding to know if I had been baptized.  As it turned out, I had not.  While my parents supported me exploring my faith, they decided not to discern on my behalf and have me baptized.  Additionally, being a military family we didn’t necessarily develop close ties with any aspect of the community, particularly the church.  As a family we explored many faiths, predominantly Unitarian and Episcopalian.  In addition to these logistical  issues, I never thought I needed a special ceremony to live in God’s grace and to be called His own.  Many of my friends thought differently.

Throughout my high school and college years and beyond, I was frequently confronted with this question.  My friends were confused and upset about why I had not been baptized.  They told me I wasn’t a “real” Christian and faced eternal damnation.  I was told that I was denying Christ by not being baptized.  I was angered by their confrontations and accusations.  Who the heck where they, or their church, to tell me what my God felt about me.  Who were they to decide whether I was in God’s “in” crowd or not.  Why did they suppose that I had to pick one variation of Christ’s church to commit myself to.  How wildly self-important to suggest that I should be “saved” in the Baptist church versus the Catholic church.  Who the heck decided that the Presbyterians had it right, while the Lutherans were wrong.  I looked at my Bible and noticed that Jesus never mentioned a denomination.  That nowhere in the scripture was there any indication of who gets picked first.  My eyes regularly landed on the scripture “Come to me all who are weary and heavy laden, for I will give you rest.” (Matthew 11:28).  Sounds like an open invitation to me.

What was worse though, was the hurt that came from these proclamations from friends.  I think that sometimes when Christians share their “truth,” they have trouble hearing the tone of judgement that comes with it.  While the Christian thinks they are “saving” a friend from eternal hell fires, they are overlooking the whole grace and love bit.  Jesus regularly shared some tough news.  The rich young ruler really didn’t want to hear he was going to have to give up all he had acquired, but at the same time His message seemed to be much more about “Follow me.” and not so much “Worship me or else.”  Because of my experiences, I continued to hang with God on my own terms, but judged anyone who carried a Bible, wore a cross or had a fish on their car severely.  Unfairly, I assumed that everyone who was a member of this special “Christ Club” perceived me the way my friends had.  I felt that having doubts in any area of my faith was condemnable, and that my personal choices weren’t appropriate for the pretty people.  When invited to churches for special events, I fussed over my appearance and examined the dirt under my nails.  The cozy home of God I had known as a little girl, didn’t exist anymore.

Eventually I did return to the church, almost accidentally.  I was a desperate, pregnant mother of three, and the church in our community had a Mother’s Day Out program.  The participation fees met my budget, and I really, really needed some time alone.  Once I joined the group, the pastor would regularly drop in and say hi to the moms and children.  I finally got comfortable enough with her to ask some questions.  I challenged the theology of the church, and confronted the judgement I frequently felt.  While she unapologetically defended the theology and doctrine of the denomination, she made clear that judgement was not what God calls us to, but rather a life of integrity and grace.  She invited me to participate in Bible studies, and because she was a really smart gal and because she always answered every question honestly, but without judgement, I went.  In these classes she encouraged the participants to confront the church and the scripture.  She taught us to ask questions and build a faith that was organic and not rote.  She introduced me to writers like Philip Yancey and Tony Campolo who will acknowledge that sometimes Christians just get  it wrong.  My pastor waited patiently for me to learn, pray and choose for myself to become a member of the church.  One day, in my mid-thirties, I decided for myself to be baptized – not because I was afraid of going to hell, but because I decided that I wanted to officially join this community of believers.

I still get hurt by church people, and I still get angry.   I have left churches, and been nervous upon entering new sanctuaries for fear of being hurt and judged.  However, I continue to embrace my faith, and I continue to work to be the “salt and light,” to be “in the world not of the world.”  It is my hope that I continue to surprise people when they find that I am a Christian – not because my behavior does not reflect the love and grace of Christ, but rather, contrary to their experiences with some Christians in the past, that it does.  It is my hope that regardless of what faith others choose to embrace, or if they elect not to choose at all, that they will come to know that there is another, sweeter voice in the church that welcomes “all who are weary and heavy laden” without judgement, just as they are.

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