It has been messy in the territory of my heart these last few weeks. Maybe longer than that. Maybe months. For months it has been messy in the territory of my heart.
Related to situations both personal and public, I have come to believe that the evangelical aspect of American Christianity, as expressed in the cultural movements of our day, is deeply incompatible with my own beliefs. I have come to believe this, even as I am a full and willing participant in the evangelical aspect of American Christianity.
This is a schism. This is a cognitive dissonance. I am one of the club. And yet I despise the club. I am on the inside. And I am firmly on the outside. I am standing in the door.
Over the last few months I have considered the possibility of resolving this dissonance in the simplest way possible: by leaving the church.
In this I struggle I am decidedly not alone. It seems all the stories I hear lately are people walking away, people getting out, people healing wounds. If you got your news from the generation that is sometimes called millennials, you might come to think the evangelical movement of the Christian church is a walking shell, held up by power and money but emptied from the inside out, spilling younger membership like blood.
And yet I hold out hope for reconciliation. I stand in the very same psychological space in which I have been made to feel unwelcome — and in some ways continue to be made to feel unwelcome — and hold out hope that I am doing this for some reason that is good. I hold out hope that I am sticking around for some good thing.
It seems more and more like a choice between two deaths. Either I stay, and become molded to a cultural standard that is inauthentic to my core beliefs. Or I leave. And either of these choices is a violence. For weeks (months?) I have been standing at this crossroads, sifting these bad options through my hands. Anger rising. Bile rising. Frustration rising.
But suddenly, sometimes, the struggle lurches angrily forward into a kind of peace. I surprised myself by remembering a teaching I had learned years ago, studying meditation with Tibetan Buddhists.
The teaching was this. “Remember the instructions.” A student of meditation sits down to meditate, and shortly forgets what she sat down to do. This is universal. The human creature drifts from the spiritual path. This is universal. I realized that I had drifted. I had forgotten the instructions.
My instruction was to love, not to stamp passports or to determine viability. My instruction was to love, not to draw boundaries between groups of people or to determine who is or is not worthy of membership.
My instruction was to love.
And then it was suddenly clear that (those concerned parties were quite right) I had indeed taken too strong a dose of politically conservative evangelical culture. I had picked up this pathology — this trademark pathology which makes my hardly sweet-voiced secular husband refer to some church or another as “The Country Club for Jesus” — this pathology in which the primary function of a church is to increase the membership of itself.
In this model of church — which we have come by quite honestly via our colonizing ancestors, for whom religion was a tool for converting enemies into slaves – both exclusivity and inclusivity serve equally to draw a firm line around the camp of Christians. We, the saved. They, the damned. In the Country Club for Jesus, even words of radical welcome are potentially coercive and manipulative. The pathology sets up these two choices, the very same two choices I faced in despair: 1) conform or 2) be located outside the walls.
But these are not my instructions. This may be my deep cultural history. But these are not my instructions.
I am remembering my instructions.
‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.’ And ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’
I will not draw a line around the evangelical Christian church. Not as the solely holy saved, but also not as the untouchables. Certainly not as the dead zone in which the failing power of redemptive grace makes change impossible.
This Idaho back country is where I live. And these are my neighbors. This is the religious language of my heritage. And these are the songs I like to sing. I will not leave.
But neither will I be frozen and stuck and let myself feel that I am out of options.
I will skip church sometimes — maybe even more than I have — to commune with tall trees and sky in the sanctuary of the wild. But I will not declare myself an outsider or a nonparticipant.
I will drive in sometimes — maybe more than I have — to hear Marci preach at the PC(USA) church in town. But I will not declare that the PC(USA) is the only true denomination, or that lady pastors are the only ones that understand.
I will state fearlessly and unequivocally that I believe in the full inclusion of persons who identify as gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender or gender queer in all aspects of church life, including mission work and leadership, and furthermore, that I believe I am led to this conviction by the movement of the Holy Spirit.
But I will not seek for the devil when I could be seeking for the face of God.
I will seek wholeness, and not division. I will seek the blurry edges and the blending. I will be strong enough to stand on the border as if the border didn’t exist: grounded in the religious tradition of my childhood, and yet, also, redeemed and free.
“Because this is the only way to change.
To want. To ask.
To be an unlocked house
in a neighborhood of robbers.
Palms open. Arms extended. Voice unshaking.
Broadening yourself like a target to say
“Aim. Shoot. I am ready.
I invite hope in
I know failure may follow.””
— Clementine von Radics
Because this is the only way to change. To want. To ask… This is why I will not leave the evangelical church today.
*Note: I rarely do disclaimers. But this one calls for a disclaimer. Please do not take this story as a recommendation that anyone should stay in a church environment where you are being hurt, or silenced, or experiencing abuse. I believe that the hard line between In and Out is a construction. But that doesn’t mean it has no power to harm. If you ask me, I will tell you to follow your joy, fearlessly and without shame, knowing that some consequences will come from that. Imagine what you hope for, and move towards that. And if that leads many seekers out of the church in this generation, so be it. God can handle it.