Monday, May 5, 2014

The Pretender

I went to church faithfully with my parents as a child. However, there was a specific point in time where I made a deliberate, rational decision to "be a Christian". To "get saved". To "believe".

In short, to follow Jesus. Early in my twenties, I was at a painful juncture in life. Things weren't working as I expected, and I had a lot of questions. Most of my decisions had been based on my own unique, cobbled-together belief system; one put together with bits and pieces of my parents' influence, Methodist church teaching, Rolling Stone magazine and a good bit of psychology. Add to that the circular creative conundrum always churning in my head, full of fictional characters from constant reading; all moving to the soundtrack of pop music and gospel songs and the mysterious, open-ended passion of Chopin and Beethoven. It was complicated.

I was complicated.

Most people are, I have come to realize. We are complicated and full of contradictions and broken. Every one of us, broken. One of my pastor's on-repeat phrases is this truth: Two kinds of people in this world; broken people who know it, and broken people who don't.

So I decided to glom on to the teachings of Jesus in a way that I knew had to be different than what I'd already experienced. There had to be more than just going to church and being a good person.

That was almost 25 years ago, and since that time I have walked in faith with Jesus. I'd like to paint you a beautiful picture of a happy, shiny, lovely life, filled with beautiful well-behaved children and a fairy-tale romance, topped off with the American dream of success and accomplishment.

Honestly, 25 years ago I believed that was the point. There is such teaching, you know; it comes from well-intentioned pulpits and Christian culture and organizational structure. Do this + say this + think this + be this = perfect Christian life/happiness. My kids' dad grew up in such a structured faith environment, and when we got together over two decades ago, I welcomed that framework believing that the secret to getting life right was tethered to its frame.

And we did well; we had babies ("let the Lord be in charge of your womb!"), we were in church every time the doors were open ("do not forsake the assembly!"), we fretted over our "lost" family members ("salvation and baptism are necessary to gain entrance to the Kingdom!"). He got the required education from the appropriate institutions (Baptist undergrad, Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary for his Masters of Divinity) and I stayed home to put on the cloak of submission and love my babies and work my Beth Moore teachings and do Becoming a Woman of Excellence and Becoming a Woman of Purpose and Becoming a Woman of Prayer.

We built a life. It looked good.

/ /

Say a prayer for the pretender
Who started out so young and strong
Only to surrender

/ /

I remember tasting the first sweet flavor of something different, something beyond all the "doing". Henry Blackaby's Experiencing God study was opened to us, and I worked that book and could not escape the notion that Jesus kept saying I came to do the will of my Father and that, truly, that's what he did, and none of it seemed remotely centered on doing or saying the 'right' thing. And this nagging thought that we were adding so much more religion to what Jesus did and said just wouldn't go away. I was hooked.

And then I read Philip Yancey's The Jesus I Never Knew and I got another taste, and I thought there might be something beyond just trying to hold everything together and be good Christians.

If you know me at all, you know that I failed miserably at getting it right; all these things that make a good Christian have blown up all around me. My kids are gifts from God, wonderful people that I adore - but they are messy and broken and they make their share of mistakes. They are not perfect, but my love for them is fierce and fluid and happy to move right through their broken places to surround them with the best I can offer as their mama.

I am divorced. And remarried.

I quit trying to get my Methodist family members "saved" because it just seemed downright rude; I accepted the fact that their passion for God is as real and legitimate as any of the Baptist preachers who proclaimed their certain eternity in hell.

No disrespect to Cynthia Heald and her Become a Woman of... series; I have become a woman of reality, where some days I doubt and other days I am in flat out rebellion against the One who made me.

But the flame, the flicker, the calling that was there when I felt the whisper of God coaxing me toward a place that I knew, somehow - with a desperate certainty - was Truth; that flame still burns, and lately the oxygen that fuels that flame has been rushing in.

Just today, the breath of heaven whooshed in with a blatant figure-pointing exercise, from God himself to me. I'm reading Richard Rohr's Breathing Under Water and this morning, these words:
You see, there is a love that sincerely seeks the spiritual good of others, and there is a love that is seeking superiority, admiration, and control for itself, even and most especially by doing "good" and heroic things...much love is actually not love at all, but its most clever and bogus disguise. Rohr, Breathing Underwater
He's talking here about the myth of sacrifice; this idea that worms its way so easily into our understanding of what it means to 'surrender' or 'take up your cross' or 'let go and let God'. This whole idea of salvation and following Jesus incorporating sacrificial living has gotten turned on its head by a system that encourages and applauds doing.

Go to church. Give your time. Give your money. Give your talent. Serve the poor.

Listen to Christian music. Use Christian words.

Give up cussing. Give up drinking. Give up dancing. Give up secular music.

All of these things - every one of them- can be (and has been, for me) beneficial. Meaningful. Helpful.

But when these things become the point, we miss the point.

Rohr calls it "false sacrifice", because it allows us to avoid the real, deeper, messier work of renouncing our self - our egotistical, self-serving, pride-filled, all-sufficient self - while letting you appear generous. Dedicated.

Like a "good Christian."

I see this, all around me. I recognize it. I lived it. 

I'm still tempted, and if I'm truth-telling here (and I am), I lean this way too often. Because it's easier. 

Well, maybe not always easier, because it takes a lot of convoluted mind games to be so "sacrificial". There's comparisons to be made, and moments to "share" how sacrificial I am (without looking prideful) and constant gut checks and the unceasing tamping down of the still, small voice that whispers there might be a better way. So that's not necessarily easier; but it is safer.

Because the starting point, the continuing point, the place where I have to reside is the sacrifice of my ego. It is in the admission that I am a wreck, that I am broken, that I am NOT worthy - and that everybody else is in the same boat. The sacrifice is of my ego. My pride. My desire to claim that, at this stage in my life, I've figured some things out. The truth is, in light of Creation and the Creator and the vast complexity of humanity, there's no chance in hell that I'm going to figure anything out.

This may read like yesterday's news to some, but it is the truth of the gospel that I began to understand a decade ago, when in the midst of total destruction and failure, I felt the gentle acceptance of God like never before. I changed lenses in my perception of what it means to believe.

I don't have to figure it out. I'm called to love.

Angie's message at church yesterday (you can see and hear it here) cracked open the door to freedom, to honesty and truth. She invited us to step on to a path of vulnerability, admitting to feelings of anger and doubt and frustration towards God. What "good" Christian could ever be mad at God? 

That's the point.

We are not "good" Christians; we are messy, dirty broken people who need help. The Bible is littered through and through with this truth; religion, tempted by power and ego, tempts us to adopt a myth of sacrifice and ignore the real deal.

Work out our salvation with fear and trembling; it's God who works in us.

Love Him, with all our heart and soul. Love others.

And when the morning light comes streaming in
Get up and do it again


Brandee Shafer said...

Such a great, honest post. I decided a long time ago that I'm going to do what I feel called to do and that I'm not going to give a care what other Christians do and don't. It's hilarious to me when people think themselves free and try to push their version of freedom on someone else. You MUST be "free!" ahahaha

Jesus is the only way, but there are so many different ways to follow him. I really do believe that.

spookyrach said...

Well said!!

annie said...

"Much love is actually not love at all." Man, have I struggled with that one!

And a few other things you mentioned as well.

Lori said...

Out into the cool of the evening
strolls the pretender
who knows that all his hopes and dreams begin and end there.

Say it again... Amen

I love that Richard Rohr book, read it at least 4 times... it's one you can read over and over and still glean.

Well said Beth... I'm with you on this one.

Edmond Sanganyado said...

This is one of the most refreshing posts I have read today. It was quite liberating to know that our salvation is a being reality not a doing exercise.