How the Gospel Might Shine
I remember very vividly the moment in which I no longer saw God as a white American.
I was on a bus on a different continent with a new friend from a different country and she was showing me her favorite music to dance to. I believe it was Iraqi music.
I remember the moment in which a whole people group, to me, became human. They became more than a dot on a map or a CNN headline. For the first time, they became teachers and bankers and artists and parents and college students who go to the movies and like dancing to Iraqi music.
My eyes filled with tears as this realization washed over me like a wave — could God be as present and sovereign in the deserts of Saudi Arabia as he was in the Baptist church in the Texas panhandle? Could he be found in the waves and the shacks and the tobacco fields and does his hand really reach to the jungles where democracy is nothing but a nine-letter word? Could God be there too? One earphone in, I looked out the window as we bounced down the windy road, dense walls of dark green trees on either side of us. Surely God must be in that wilderness too.
I thought about all the people I knew — of different faiths and of no faith at all — who often reminded me more of Jesus than a lot of Christians I knew. Could God be there? I knew God could prepare a table in the presence of my enemies, but could he prepare one in the presence of my friends?
Every mile we drove with that Middle Eastern boy band in my ears, my God grew a little bigger, a little more sovereign, a little more complex. It seemed that in that moment, everything I’d been so certain of was turned on its head and shattered. Sometimes even still, I find myself mourning little deaths of who I was two, three, four years ago.
“I’d had an encounter with a God who so loved the world as much as he’d blessed the USA . . .”
Soon, I began a scandalous affair with High Church and I started to wonder how the Gospel might shine should we stop trying so hard to adorn it with white church culture and conservative politics. Over the next two years, I’d begin to slowly dismantle the boxes I’d built around God, recoiling all the while from one certainty to another, like a reckless, wounded pendulum.
I would encounter many people, as I staggered on, who were (and are) drenched in a holy patience that burns slow. Thanks be to God for the ones who read books with me and met for coffee to discuss things about faith that both mystified and enraged me; for the ones who took my middle-of-the-night phone calls and told me it was okay that I felt lost and a little betrayed. Thanks be to God for the professors, pastors, mentors and friends who listened and prayed and heaped grace onto me by the bucketful when I had not one drop to spare. For every impatient scoffer, there was a faithful friend who offered to journey alongside me regardless of where we might end up. Thanks be to God.
I was so burdened there were months I hardly slept. It was as if my eyes had slowly been opening to all the things in the world that were wrong and hard and complicated but try as I might, I just couldn’t look away. I couldn’t un-see. I’d had an encounter with a God who so loved the world as much as he’d blessed the USA and I couldn’t put that down. I’d encountered a God who said the last would be first and the meek would inherit the earth and I knew I wasn’t last or meek but it suddenly became more attractive than power or money or winning. I met a God who wept with the people I unknowingly helped push to the margins and I couldn’t un-meet him. I can’t un-meet him.
“I sat once again in . . . deafening silence with the ceaseless echoes ringing in my ears — ‘all lives matter!’”
It seemed that 2016 was the year of hashtags, wasn’t it? It seemed like every day there was another death of another black person and I waited. I waited for the response of my pro-life brothers and sisters but I watched as the majority once again fell silent. Some responded with apathetic comments of, “Well it’s sad, but…” — others furiously googled to find criminal records that proved these humans did indeed deserve death and some filled their echo chambers and the streets with impassioned cries of “All lives matter!” — except they don’t. Some don’t. We watched the live broadcast of Philando Castile’s death and it didn’t matter — at least, not to very many of my pro-life, colorblind friends. Hashtag after hashtag. Silence. The occasional: “Well it’s sad, but all lives matter.” Except they don’t. Some don’t. Story after story I’ve heard from my friends of color who live their lives with the dull throb of fear that’s buried so deep in their bones they’re not sure when it even started hurting. My friend told me her black husband gets pulled over at least twice a month and won’t drive at night anymore and I wracked my brain trying to remember the last time I’d been pulled over — I think it was sometime in 2014.
I watched footage and read accounts from people who were driven out of their homes by violence and war and corruption and I sat once again in white evangelicals’ deafening silence with the ceaseless echoes ringing in my ears — “all lives matter!” Except they don’t. The rickety boats on the furious waves, tossing humans around like rag dolls and spitting them up on the shore of some foreign land where they were unwanted and I wondered if that was how Jonah felt. And then I remembered that I was among those who had counted them unwanted and I wondered if maybe I could relate to Jonah even better than they could. Could God be there too? Could he be on the European beaches and in the airports and under the rubble and in the poisonous aftermath of a public official violently killing his own people? Could God prepare a table in that wilderness? I honestly didn’t know.
Night after night I spent wrestling with God and myself and wondering how I could’ve been missing the mark so badly — overlooking so easily the people who were most vulnerable.
Then the charismatic pastor with two first names at a church I don’t even go to, calmly told me from the stage that God was going to keep revealing to me things that were disturbing and broken and it wasn’t my job to lie down in defeat but to stand up and faithfully intercede. I could do that. I could not do much else but I could wail to the Father as if I believed his Word was true and that his gospel actually changes things.
“Even if she was raped, it was like 30 years ago, shouldn’t the chick be over it by now anyway?”
I remember vividly when God became more feminine, softer, more compassionate.
It was around the time the cheeky headshot of the guy from the Ivy League school was blasted all over social media and the news. He had raped a woman behind a dumpster at a party and then went to jail for about 20 minutes because any longer than that would have “a severe impact on him” — and not to mention, his collegiate swim career was on the line. I remember the comments — the ones online and in-person — from callous people listing all the ways the victim could’ve prevented the situation. And then there were the ones suggesting that alcohol was the real culprit here. Ironically enough, that argument was usually made by people who have “Guns don’t kill people, people kill people” bumper stickers.
Then I read the victim’s letter. It was so disturbing I couldn’t even read it all in one sitting.
I remember being so stunned at the lack of outrage within my conservative, evangelical circle. At one point I was convinced that maybe they’d all just decided not to watch the news anymore, but that was proven false a few short months later, when Target — my home away from home — announced their new genderless bathrooms. Overnight, women’s safety in Target bathrooms became Facebook’s highest priority. Still no word, though, on women’s safety behind frat house dumpsters.
I watched as powerful male celebrities, talk show hosts, businessmen and politicians exploited their influence, power, and money and used it to lord over truly defenseless women. I watched, once again, as the large majority of my evangelical circle sat in silence. And I watched as some actually mocked, belittled, and blamed the victims — “Even if she was raped, it was like 30 years ago, shouldn’t the chick be over it by now anyway?” I haven’t decided yet which was more painful to witness — the silence or the mockery — but I know it became crystal clear to me why most victims never come forward — not all lives matter.
“. . . panic washed over me and the thought crept in: ‘Who, then?’ If not the men who claim Jesus . . . then who?”
I remember when the video surfaced of our president, bragging about sexually assaulting women. It was shocking and repulsive, absolutely, but I wasn’t devastated by it. The misogyny, the dehumanization, the bullying that’s happening I’m sure as you read this, are not the things that devastate me. One man does not devastate me. What devastated me — and still does — is the response from my white evangelical circle — the men, mostly. I felt like I watched the spines of the men I most respected evaporate into thin air. As I listened to them defend and explain away and call what is evil good, panic washed over me and the thought crept in: “Who, then?” If not the men who claim Jesus, who have promised to protect and lead and help defend the vulnerable, then who? I thought about the women I know and love who’ve been assaulted and wounded and tossed aside — what about their dignity and their voice? They weren’t victims of Locker Room Talk but of real-life violence and trauma. Which men, then, will help us advocate for these women? And then I wondered if it were me — would they speak up for me, or would tribalism still reign if it were my life and dignity at stake? I didn’t talk much about it, but the grief absolutely consumed me — sometimes it still does. What about that wilderness? Could God be found there too?
I remembered back over the last couple years when I’d met a God who was compassionate and righteous and said that women were to be honored — the same God who grieves with the broken-hearted and comforts the mourning and shows us again and again that the Church is actually founded on the margins. I hope that maybe we’ll be the ones to tear down, piece by piece, a system that was reconstructed to empower the powerful, protect the abusers and silence the daughters.
Pastor Jonathan Martin said, “If you want to walk in the humble, Christ-like power of the Spirit, don’t seek ‘the right people.’ Seek the Spirit-baptizer. Power doesn’t come from any Church’s board room. It comes from the upper room. You wait, you tarry. You are filled. You are sent.
“Spirit movements always come from outside — camp meetings, fields, places where folks are thrown out. Why should I come inside now? What for? …Will you teach in the classroom what can only be learned in the wilderness? Do I need to jump through your hoops in order to get to Mt. Sinai? Spirit is poured out on all flesh, that mountain is all of ours, now.”
I think I’ll spend my whole life learning what it means to embrace that. Learning how to set up camp in the places where folks are thrown out, the places where the Spirit moves most freely.
“. . . there is not one single place he won’t be found.”
The relentless cynic in me had all but taken over when I wandered into a community. A community that God has used to restore some of the deepest fractures and soften some of the most jagged edges. They’re the ones who hold eye contact, whose eyes grow yet softer and kinder when you try to laugh off the things that make you sad — they don’t fall for it. It’s full of smart, strong women and gentle, steadfast men. It’s a community of deeply flawed human beings but ones who offered to help carry the heavy stuff.
When I think about what I want to be known for, it’s that. I want to be known as one of the helpers who bears the burdens of the ones who feel storm-tossed and overlooked. One who builds a longer table, not a higher fence.
The ones surrounding me show me what it looks like to serve, support, disciple, create, pray, build, worship, give. Daily, I am humbled when I see how out-of-my-league I am. God is there. He prepares tables there in the middle of our humanity and our mess and our mistakes. He is in the church building, but he is also in the desert. And as much as he is in the desert, he is in the waves and the rubble and the filthy trenches. He came to us, cloaked in vulnerability and there is not one single place he won’t be found.
If you’ve been storm-tossed and forgotten, I hope you’ll muster up the courage to try one more time. I hope in your wandering you will push on until you see the lighthouse, and let yourself be welcomed in.
God is in the boxes we construct, but he does his best work when we dismantle them. I don’t think he asks for uniformity but I’ve sure seen him shine in unity. The hills on which I will die have grown fewer but much steeper. Lots of things don’t really matter at all. A few things matter a lot. I think there’s more grace for gray areas than we ever knew, but when in doubt, I hope we’ll err on the side of love and not tribalism, righteousness and not rightness. My prayer for the Church for the last year has been this: that we would learn how to call each other higher without tearing each other down. I have great hope in the Church — namely because it was Jesus’ idea. And while we have a long way to go, I have experienced the redemption and the beauty found there. Because God is there, and if he can prepare a table in the presence of our enemies, surely he can prepare one in the presence of our friends.