2015 was one of those years that, upon quick reflection, you want to forget.
On an international level, there’s been chaos. Violent extremism ravages our world. Bias and prejudice plague us. Guns continue to kill.
On a personal level, there has been family hardship and difficult times. I was also let go from my teaching position at a Christian university for supporting marriage equality.
2015 could be categorized by loss. Instead, as this tumultuous year draws to welcomed close, I’m labeling it The Year My Faith Became Free. My faith is in the process of liberation from the confines that restricted it for far too long.
Growing up in an evangelical setting, I always heard that God’s grace is free. Relationship with God is not contingent on my works, but on my cognitive assent to have “a personal relationship with Christ.” Cool. Except, if we are honest with ourselves, it’s never really been free, at least not in the sense that the narrative has been framed. From a young age I was taught that people who do not accept Christ will burn in Hell. Forever.
Forever. Let’s sit with that a moment.
Faith ought to rest on Christ’s Love. Instead it’s been rooted in trauma and fear. That fear has had long-lasting results on what my faith is and is not as an adult.
While I want this final post of 2015 to avoid being too academic, I’d like to offer some reflections on faith through my narrative. In 2015 I realized that my “personal relationship with Jesus Christ” was based on fear of not doing things well enough, not being good enough to avoid Hell (both in a literal-eternal and a literal-temporal way). From that, I for too long silenced a longing for something deeper, something more mystic in my engagement with God. I likewise became troubled by the framing of Christianity that necessarily excludes some groups of people. It’s antithetical to the extended and expansive Love that Christ offers. Thanks to the influence of writers like Soren Kierkegaard, Richard Rohr, & Miroslav Volf, my theology continued to shift to something new, something deeper in 2015. Some may call it “liberal” or “progressive.” I simply call it a reflection of who I think God to be for this world. Kierkegaard puts this best,
“When one must have a real relation to God … then one quickly learns that one must make sure to understand that everything that God does is good … It is impossible to have a real relation to God and at the same time remain in one’s merely human and earthly notion of what is good and bad, pleasant and unpleasant.”
I started seeing myself outside of the box of American Christianity. Desperately seeking God in these moments, I wondered how I was supposed to relate with God when I was viewing things from outside the lines of what I’ve always known. Then I realized something profound. God wasn’t in the box.
The boxed-God ideas of goodness and badness, of myopic understandings of living Christianly, were no longer meaningful. God’s wholeness and goodness seemed deeper than the categories we’ve constructed. Living according to those constructions no longer seemed plausible. It wasn’t enough. Behind the systematizing, God was more grand. I was finally able to call this shift in perspective good.
While I’ve held an affirming and inclusive position on same-sex relationships for a while, it was not until this past summer where my beliefs became known. With whatever influence I had as a Christian philosopher, and after a time of extended prayer, I no longer wanted to live in that fear of standing up for justice and equality. That vocal stance is not just “the right thing to do.” God invited me to something greater…to stand with a people long misunderstood and who were being subjected to unfair treatment in Christian circles. It’s the story of Jesus.
While the loss of my teaching position is significant, I don’t want to dwell on the details of those situations here. I’ve spent much of the last several months working through anger and hurt. Instead, I want to focus on the result of faith.
In the midst of the devastation and chaos, beautiful things arose. I immediately received blessings from so many who would walk with me. The term walk with has become a sort of motto. There is power with with-ness. I grew up with the “God has a path laid out for you” Jesus. The idea is that there is a path specifically for you. It’s one that, if followed, would lead to Jesus (and flourishing).
The Christian narrative is not following a clear path. As I’ve discovered, it’s more about a desert sandstorm that has pulverized a discernible path. Faith is the recognition that The Christ is walking with us in those moments. When we can’t see where we are going, when the path to flourishing that we thought we were on is erased, Christ is with us.
And so are others.
In the midst of this, friendships have been formed and deepened. The little things became profound. I received emails and messages from strangers with encouraging words. The entire period was a continuum of vulnerability. I had people I could be angry with, people I could cry with. My friends and former colleagues gave a generous gift to send me away to the Pacific for a time away and to reflect. My friend Kevin (by the way, go read his blog) prayed with me at a vividly painful moment. He said something in his prayer that I wrote down immediately and have come back to frequently.
Help Michael smile again, because his smile is a reflection of his kind and caring heart.
There aren’t many more loving words. In a moment when I deeply doubted the freeness of my faith, when it seemed to cost me everything, joy seemed lightyears away. In those moments, community became so real. The God-Self-Others unity began to tighten. I began to experience the realness of the command to Love God-Love Others. As Kierkegaard writes,
“Love for God and love for neighbor are like two doors that open simultaneously, so that it is impossible to open one without opening the other, and impossible to shut one without also shutting the other.”
I share this part of my narrative not to sound like a martyr. I’m not. And my story pales in comparison to that of others who experience prejudice on a daily basis due to their race, gender, or sexual orientation. I say this because Christianity is a lived-out faith. For the first time in 2015, Love God-Love Others became beautifully real. I likewise say this to encourage the many of you out there who are desiring a relationship with Christ that is deeper the staleness of American Christianity. Don’t be bound by fear. If you’re standing still, wondering what might be next, terrified to take that step, remember that the Christ is with you. This with-ness is both mystical and literal. It’s an inexplicable longing of heart. Just start walking. People will come into your life to walk with you in unexplored territory. God has for too long been boxed up, contained as a small idea. The true God is an un-boxed God, flowing and moving, wanting to walk with you.
2015 was the year my faith finally became free. Let’s together make 2016 a year where we walk with each other in the continuation of our narratives.