As I mentioned in my previous entry, I’ve had those who would question the reality, the validity...even the possibility...that I might be a Christian, particularly because I’m gay. I've had some who were polite enough to ask ("Are you a Christian?") rather than draw their own conclusion. And there are those who've known me in the past who wanted to know if I still consider myself a Christian.
So I thought while we were on the subject, I would set the record...uhm, straight.
Side Note: I've also had some who have pressed the question more, asking “Are you a true Christian?” The very idea of such qualifying words imply levels that are open for evaluation, like some religious pyramid scheme. (“Yes, I made diamond believer last week after I prayed for 6 hours and won two people to Jesus!”)
Of course, once I came out, many took it on themselves to assume I'd renounced my faith in order to live a wild, hedonistic “gay lifestyle.” For too many in the conservative religious community, the homosexual is rarely perceived or discussed as a person, just a set of preconceived, out-of-control behaviors. It's so much easier to judge actions (real or imagined) than getting to know an actual person.
When I began on Facebook, people from my past—particularly from the church I’d pastored for 10+ years—friended me. I thought it might a good way of healing for me and for them. But it wasn’t long before I discovered there was often hidden motives involved. I also learned that I was the topic of private conversations, both actual and virtual. They were determined to use our online connection to “restore” me to the faith by bringing me to "repentance."
I don’t question their sincerity or the concern, just their understanding. I get they were hurt, and struggled to reconcile the ‘me’ they’d known as their Pastor, and the ‘me’ as an out, gay man. My Facebook wall turned into a battleground, with my “soul” as the apparent prize. They were not open to conversation, just confrontation. They didn't ask, they assumed. There was doctrine with no chance of disagreement.
As you might expect, the majority of those connections did not last.
I acknowledge that I can be highly critical of the church, and the more raucous, extreme leaders. I speak out regularly against those who use their ministerial or political positions of power and influence to promote hate, exclusion, discrimination or neglect of those Jesus embraced. I speak out against those who claim the "name" of Christ, but show little of His compassion. I will vocally and vehemently disagree with those who will use the Bible to hurt others.
Some have interpreted that to mean that I no longer identify as a Christian.
When I took a “break” from the church, which I'd erroneously anticipated would be short, I got notes and phone calls from people who equated my absence with an abandonment of my faith. “Please don’t turn your back on Jesus,” one church member told me. In other words, I wasn't going to church, so the logical assumption presented: I am no longer a Christian.
So...here's my story.
Just after I began college, I had a significant, yet quiet, personal "spiritual encounter" with Christ. I wasn't at an evangelistic crusade, and I didn't walk down an aisle; I didn't pray a "sinners prayer." I didn't even tell anyone for a while. I don’t have the words or phrases to adequately describe what happened to me, without using trite “christianeze lingo," elite language of the church or dusty theological concepts. (e.g., "born again," "asked Jesus into my heart," "accepted Jesus as my Savior") But for me, it was authentic, profound and transformative.
I am still committed to the reality of the faith I silently embraced that night, 45+ years ago.
I am a Christian.
Personal Note: It’s true there are times, particularly these days, when it’s difficult to use that word which now carries so much negative baggage because of the antics of the Fundamentalist extremists. I cringe thinking I might be lumped in with those who (in my opinion) misrepresent our faith, misunderstand our ministry and damage our message.
I greatly value my faith.
What began that evening many years ago has been an ongoing source of strength and comfort. I still nourish my faith, and have chosen to maintain it. (Yes, it’s a choice...unlike my sexual orientation!) I pray—regularly, intentionally, unconsciously, and meditatively. I read many books on theology and the Christian experience, from a wide range of authors and perspectives. I still have my personal quiet times and still love reading and studying (and teaching) the Bible. I want very much to be part of a Faith Community, and feel I’ve exerted great energy and time in that pursuit.
I am a Follower (learner, disciple) of Jesus.
But sadly, that requires clarification.
I reject the ‘Jesus’ many Fundamentalists/Conservatives preach today—an Americanized, politicized graven image who’s unconcerned with modern problems (or solutions) like gun violence, poverty, hunger, homelessness, injustice, discrimination, war, distribution of wealth, etc. (i.e., Those things He actually talked about in the Gospels!) I reject a Jesus who is indifferent to the poor, the disenfranchised, the sick, the downtrodden, the oppressed..."the least of these." (i.e., Those people Jesus said were the focus of His ministry, and the ones He said we were to care for.) I reject the Jesus who's been co-opted to motivate people to give money to lavish ministries that support the opulent lifestyles of snake-oil salesmen masquerading as Shepherds. I reject the capricious, vindictive Jesus used to control behavior and sway voters.
I am uninterested in that Jesus.
I do, however, recognize, embrace and follow a Radical Jesus—radical in His message of God's Kingdom, radical in His inclusivity, radical in His acceptance of those considered outcasts and "sinners," and radical in His complete rejection of a religious system (and its leaders) that places more importance on rules, restrictions and regulations than on the needs of people. I am committed to the primacy and priority of a radical LOVE, taught by this Jesus.
To further clarify, I guess we could say there have been some "fundamental" changes to my beliefs. These days I identify more as a Moderate (or Progressive) in my theology, though such terms can be confining. I have my core beliefs, but most things are subject to scrutiny, re-evaluation, new insight, alteration...or abandonment.
I welcome the questions in life as much as the answers of faith; they are not in conflict with one another. I’ve certainly turned my back on the rigid, black-and-white mentality of my early Fundamentalism. I’ve let go of my need to have everything in a neat, theological package—a necessity learned from my conservative, Evangelical education and training. But contrary to a recent accusation, I am not compromising with only dull shades of gray when it comes to faith; I am embracing the multi-hued colors of Truth. (You know, kinda like a rainbow!)
My adherence to some tenets of traditional creed has either come into question, is in the process of being re-examined or has been forsaken as unnecessary bulk. Things that were once essentials have grown smaller for me, but God has gotten bigger!
Most of all, I have peace! (And it’s that kind the Apostle Paul called “beyond understanding.” cf: Philippians 4:7)
We can discuss (and even disagree about) the Bible, church doctrine and traditional interpretations, but I won’t argue. I am determined to love you, even in our divergence. I hope for that love in return, but it won’t change my attitude nor my approach. Moreover, I won’t allow anyone who has a different interpretation, or a denominational affiliation, or a revelation of the Spirit, or a “word from God,” to demean me. I will not accept their belief that God rejects or disapproves of me. That matter has been settled. Forever! They cannot swat the assurances given to me by the God they supposedly represent or the Bible they claim to understand.
It boils down to this: if you identify as a Christian, as I promised in my last entry, I will embrace you. But if you cannot or will not acknowledge me as a Christian, that's your problem, not mine. I will not debate, nor will I defend my faith. I can only suggest that together we read those powerful words of assurance from the last verses of Romans:
“Yes, I am sure that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor ruling spirits, nothing now, nothing in the future, no powers, nothing above us, nothing below us, nor anything else in the whole world will ever be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.” (Romans 8:38-39 NCV)
So the answer is, YES, I am a Christian.
I am still a Christian.