I (Steve) am so pleased that this month our blog post is brought to us by a friend I’ve known since we were both students at Trevecca Nazarene College (as it was known then). Michelle graduated from Trevecca, when it was still just a college, with a degree in Accounting. She is married to her high-school sweetheart and fellow Trevecca grad, Murphy. She’s followed him to Georgia, Texas, Indiana, Michigan , and finally back home to Nashville, TN. She was a reluctant (at best) pastor’s wife. Her greatest blessing and accomplishment is her son Daniel. She’s living the introvert’s dream working from home. Her reading list is long and will never be completed. She and Murphy have started a ministry for LGBTQ people who have been pushed out of church called The Vibrant Edges. She loves all things PBS and BBC and football (Titans, Tennesee, Vandy, Auburn, MSU).
I was a compliant child. I didn’t break the rules. If you told me something, I didn’t question it. That seems a lifetime ago and it would surprise many who have only known me the last five years or so. There are so many things I never questioned. I’m not sure how I came to start questioning. Mid-life crisis? Maybe. I really don’t know. I think it was a gradual thing. I pulled on a thread one day. Then I found another, and I pulled it. Before I knew it, my sweater had unraveled. I’m learning to knit now out of necessity.
I grew up in the evangelical church. I was treated to a special kind of trauma by attending Nazarene church camp and being treated to an annual showing of A Thief in the Night. If you didn’t grow up in the 70’s or 80’s, the premise is the rapture came and you screwed up and now everyone but you is in heaven. Don’t you wish you had been better? I guess maybe I was scared into compliance. Questioning was never part of being a believer. If you question that’s doubt and that isn’t going to get you to Heaven. I came out of the “God said it. I believe it. That settles it.” camp.
It worked alright for many years, except I generally felt I wasn’t trying hard enough or really investing enough effort to please God. I was a child of divorce before it was common. My dad left the evangelical church and my mom. He drank (yes, alcohol) and smoked and I was convinced he was going to hell. It broke my heart. And it was impressed upon me over my growing up years that I was my responsibility to “bring him back into the fold.” And I also needed to convert all my friends. I was an evangelical failure. I was not winning souls for Jesus and I got guilted about it frequently. In 2011, my dad was diagnosed with cancer. There was a huge cloud hanging over our time together before he passed. I had to convince him to pray the prayer so he wouldn’t go to hell. But I couldn’t do it. I really was going to have the talk about his soul with him, but something stopped me. I think it may have been that I was starting to pull on that first thread. He was a good man and he believed in the Divine. He didn’t attend church or follow the manual rules, but told me that he was at peace. I believed that. When he passed away, I too was at peace. I do not believe he is being tormented eternally. That belief did not square with anything I was taught in all my spiritual formation.
I had become good friends with some “unchurched” people. They were queer. They were also really, truly good people. When my friend Kate told me she was getting married to her partner, my Nazarene upbringing kicked in. Uh-oh, she’s going to hell. Why is it, then, that I am happy for her? I looked at church polity on the subject and came away with the conclusion that God is kind of a jerk because he creates people who are queer and then he tells them that because they are queer, they don’t get to participate in life and marriage and family like the people who he created to be straight. Then I start reading things about context and translation and those few verses don’t really seem to mean what I’ve been told they mean. And what about that Ethiopian eunuch? And why didn’t Jesus mention it? My sweater was becoming quite a mess.
When I really thought about atonement theory, it just seemed off. Why does God send his son to save us from the wrath of Himself? Why did Jesus come? Was it incarnation or to pay our debt and save us from his Father? Was he crucified because I would fail God 2000 years later or because he called out oppressive systems? Was he a gruesome blood sacrifice to a vengeful God or was he showing the ultimate love and being the ultimate peacemaker? How is it that God is good and yet he hates us because we somehow got born with sin because Adam disobeyed? Jesus said if we’ve seen him, we’ve seen the Father. My picture of the Father (thanks to some really bad theology) looked nothing like Jesus. His parables over and over contradicted the picture of a wrathful God of judgement and separation. There goes another thread.
Richard Rohr writes, “Much of Christian history has manifested a very different god than the one Jesus revealed and represented. Jesus tells us to love our enemies, but this ‘cultural’ god sure doesn’t. Jesus tells us to forgive ‘seventy times seven’ times, but this god doesn’t. Instead, this god burns people for all eternity. Many of us were raised to believe this, but we usually had to repress this bad theology into our unconscious because it’s literally unthinkable. Most humans are more loving and forgiving than such a god. We’ve developed an unworkable and toxic image of God that a healthy person would never trust.” Now there’s a big pile of tangled yarn in my floor.
So, now I’m starting over on my sweater. My unraveling of this sweater has taken me outside our tribe and now I have joined the ranks of former Nazarene NazToons. I still love my tribe and the good things it does in the world. I had to step outside the tribe, partially because I married an ordained elder who also unraveled his sweater and the tribe said “no” to him. But I think I had to step away because before I started tugging on strings, I noticed that sweater didn’t fit well and it was itchy. I am certain of a few things, much fewer things than I used to be. God is love. Questions are good. Grace is scandalous. This song is where I find my heart these days: God Is. . .