Some of the nasty entanglements of politics and religion in our time sharpen the question of what constitutes authentic Christian faith. And when Christian identity is reduced to how one votes on one issue only, we wonder how our witness became so truncated. Many are qualifying how they use the identifier “Christian” because they want to be clear about what they are not.
I have a friend who ruefully describes herself as “barely Christian.” Actually, she knows Christianity quite well. She grew up in a conservative tradition that knew exactly what girls and boys were supposed to do – how to dress, how to behave, how to live in the traditional roles prescribed by patriarchy. She and her future husband attended a Bible college together, married and started down an expected pathway of him leading, her following and life being straightforward because all the rules would prevail. Then, faith and life collided, as she likes to say.
Actually, it was what happened at church that made her question what it meant to be a Christian when the conservative “center does not hold,” in the words of William Butler Yeats. Church folk poured out judgment on persons she loved, condemning them for their questions, for their sexual identity and for their expansive vision of God’s welcome. Why would liberating freedom be experienced more beyond the church walls than within, she wondered.
“It was what happened at church that made her question what it meant to be a Christian.”
My friend is not alone in these intimations that all is not well in the ecclesial world. We know the statistics about the increasing number of Americans who do not go to church and the reasons they offer. The perception of the church as being “judgmental” seems to be at the top of the list. Many persons already live with a deep sense of shame about being who they are, and few welcome condemnation for the pathway they have taken. The days of Hawthorne’s Scarlet Letter are long past, yet vestiges of harsh exclusionary action persist. Indeed, it may be Jesus’ welcome of those who bore the emblem of sexual impropriety in his time that makes us most uncomfortable.
During Advent at my church, a young unwed mother and her child played the role of the Virgin Mary and baby Jesus in the tableau of the Holy Family. No Joseph was present this year, and to my knowledge no one got the vapors. While many in the congregation were proud of themselves, it was such a small step.
Last night Nadia Bolz-Weber was in town to promote her new book, Shameless: A Sexual Revolution, and, by all accounts of those who attended her presentation, she was terrific. She was touching on the church’s discomfort with human sexuality and its attempt to repress, or at least carefully regulate, the mystery and power of being fully human. She knows that if the church could be more at ease in constructive conversation about sexuality it might have a greater chance of relevance.
In an interview with journalist Cathy Lynn Grossman, Bolz-Weber described the rationale for her book:
I heard terrible stories about the impact sexual shame had on the members of my church – the harm in their lives and in their bodies from the toxic messages they were told based on the Bible. I want people who read this to re-think their ideas about sexual ethics, gender, orientation, extra-marital sex, and the inherent goodness of the human body. We are reaching for a new sexual ethic that’s not based on a standardized list of “thou shall nots,” but on concern for each other’s flourishing, letting go of shame.
This is bracing stuff, and in her role as a public theologian, Bolz-Weber will find many persons receptive to her message.
“It may be Jesus’ welcome of those who bore the emblem of sexual impropriety in his time that makes us most uncomfortable.”
We know that it is in the therapist’s office rather than the pastor’s study that persons are often more ready to unfurl their complicated lives. Yet wise pastors also hold enormous power to assure persons that God welcomes them fully and does not find them essentially flawed. I am grateful to know a number of these pastors, and they have deep capacity to facilitate healing as they listen and love.
Back to my friend, the “barely Christian” who keeps one foot in the church and one out the door. She ministers in both arenas, and she is a gentle (well, mostly) reminder that God’s love is especially for those who know their need. The smug and the self-satisfied rarely experience the searing pain of exclusion. It is the raw realities of life that draw her compassion and therapeutic wisdom. She may be closer to the real identity of Christian than others of us who so confidently claim it.
Even at a seminary we know that pastoral leadership, essential as it is for the life of the Body of Christ, is not the only way to practice the ancient ministry of “the cure of souls.” Salvation, after all, is about a gradual healing, and God will work through every constructive channel of mercy.