I was reminded of this tonight, after a fascinating discussion about what we prioritize in life, where we honestly find purpose and meaning. Most of the folks around this particular table had some history with going to church, and so part of our discussion included things we'd heard or been taught in various corporate religious settings.
Nobody really has a monopoly on bad theology; several different denominations were mentioned. And none of these cases were tales of extremists - no evil David Koresh characters misleading the faithful.
Instead, it seems to often be in the little things, the questioning and wondering about what, exactly, adds up to a purposeful, meaningful life. We're all living for something, pointing our energy in a direction that allows for some satisfaction.
These were the things we talked about tonight - not some trite list of Things Christians Hate, but the very real Things People Value. We've all found ourselves leaning hard into our humanity, because - well, we're human.
The reminder of why church can be so hurtful and damaging came in some discussion of what it means to be "in the will of God". This is a very Christian thing, particularly an Evangelical Christian thing. It sets forth the belief that there is one perfect way to please God - to make the right choices for career, friends, education, spouse, work, food, clothes, habits - in short, everything. "The Will Of God" is a formidable way of living, one that requires a great deal of hand-wringing and striving.
Because you've got to get it right.
I looked back at a season of life when I believed that certain people were "God's Chosen Ones" (and I'm not talking about the Israelites) and that Every. Single. Decision. would be either right (because it was God's perfect will) or wrong (because I had failed to discern God's Perfect Will).
This is how so many people understand Christian faith -striving for some sort of righteousness that, though challenging to attain, remains the true measure of faith. Don't drink, don't smoke, don't dance, don't cuss, don't spit, don't have sex outside of marriage, don't sin.
Manage all the "don'ts" and you've got yourself a righteous life.
(For the record, it's darn near impossible. In fact, I think I just blew it with that sentence, because we all know that "darn" is just shorthand for a cuss word, and simply substituting a word doesn't obliterate my bad thoughts.)
It's exhausting. I've tried, and failed.
For the past decade, I've been part of group of people who strive to redefine what it means to follow Jesus - to "be a Christian" by, quite simply, following Jesus authentically. Tonight, in our group discussion, somebody connected the dots in a way that clarified so much - and helped me reframe my own understanding of my past. I can't quote verbatim, but the point was this: That instead of focusing on all the things that a person shouldn't do to live a good life, our common goal in this faith community seems to be accepting people as they are - mistakes and all - and seeing God work through the reality of our lives, one by one, and together.
It's true. Righteousness that comes through the cracks of a broken life is a lovely, grace-softened thing. Redemption is beautiful.
Here's a good definition of what it means to be a follower of Jesus:
"...Creator God...has pursued us and brought us into a restored and healthy relationship
with Him through Jesus. And He has given us the same mission, the ministry of reconciliation...
It is central to our good news that God was in the Anointed making things right between Himself and the world. This means He does not hold their sins against them.
But it also means He charges us to proclaim
the message that heals and restores
our broken relationships with God
and each other."
2 Corinthians 5.18-19, The Voice
If you're one of those folks who is skeptical, uninterested or just pissed off at the church and Christian people, you probably have good reason. Maybe you don't even believe in God, so these musings are pointless to you.
But for those who wonder how we've gotten it wrong, and what it might take to get it right, consider this: Our charge is to share a message that heals and restores.
Not to condemn or judge. Not to shame. Not to tell someone who suffers a devastating injury that it was likely because they weren't living right.
To share, with love, a message that heals and restores - us with God, and us with each other. Reconciliation.
That's not exhausting. That's living.
Let's go do it.