“I don’t like telling my friends that I am Christian,” she told me. “I always have so much explaining to do.”
Maybe you have felt patronized, judged, or violated by someone’s attempt to evangelize you. Others may know the discomfort of identifying yourself as Christian and watching people stiffen, bristle, and look for an easy exit from a conversation. I cringe when news media sum up Christianity with a one dimensional sound bite, which shrinks nuance, metaphor, and a 2000 year history of religious thought and lived expression to nail clipping snippets.
The image of Christianity in the United States has suffered a major setback in the past twenty years, and not without good cause. Dan Kinnaman and Gabe Lyons call this “a growing tide of hostility and resentment toward Christianity.” From the beginning Christians have disagreed about interpretation of faith. They have treated one another terribly in the process, as well as many non Christians, who have crossed their path over the centuries.
Yet outsiders in the twentieth century held a favorable view of the disparate followers of Jesus. In 1996 eighty five per cent of the people on the outside looking in at Christianity had widespread respect for Christianity. However today, only fifteen years later, younger people outside the faith, as well as some inside the faith, have lost much of their respect for Christianity.
Among the twenty four million outsiders (agnostics, atheists, and persons of other faiths) who are age sixteen to twenty nine, thirty eight per cent have a bad impression of present day Christianity. One-third say Christianity presents a negative image with which they do not want to be associated. Seventeen per cent maintain very bad perceptions of Christian faith. (David Kinnaman and Gabe Lyons, Un Christian – What a New Generation Really Thinks about Christianity … and Why It Matters, Baker Books, 2008, pp 24-25.)
Clergy today are held with suspicion and even contempt by some people. Professional misconduct, the flagrant abuse of those entrusted to their care, scandals, and fraud have left a bad taste for all of us, and deeply scarred many.
I recently heard about a congregation which observed a day of repentance for the sins of Christians against others and against the earth. I like this idea so much that I think it ought to be incorporated in church calendars – a day of atonement for sins committed in the name of religion.
Once in a while I come up against hostility in thoughtful, intelligent, open minded people and am stunned to find a bigot. At such moments I give thanks I am not in Rome when Paul was, or other places today where Christians are persecuted and killed. And in such moments I get a glimpse of what Muslim brothers and sisters must endure from those who perceive them as potential terrorists.
I also realize with a sigh that I have a lot of explaining to do, if I want to do the work of developing a more intimate and honest relationship with this person. This is not because I think the person needs to be saved, but because Christianity so deeply defines me, that for us to have an authentic relationship, we both need to be known as we are.
So why am I Christian? I will do a little explaining. My mother was a Quaker and my father, Mennonite, and faith was as common and sustaining as the air they breathed. When they got married, they joined the Presbyterian Church and there I was raised. Unassuming faith, which never had a conflict with science or a searching mind, was woven into our lives and led my parents to take stands to protect the environment and to respond to injustice.
In my early twenties I stepped back from the faith of my father and mother and did some exploring. Then in my early thirties I had a crisis of faith. It was not a crisis in my faith in God. No. It was a crisis in my faith in myself. I painfully discovered that I could not find wholeness and peace by how smart I was, how good I was, by how hard I worked, by what people thought of me.
In the giddy 1970s psychology and the human potential movement were going to save us. I remember clearly the day when I came up against the endless striving of my ego and saw the emptiness and futility of all my efforts to establish my well being on what I could do, or know, or possess.
I began to discover that peace and joy seemed to hinge more on my capacity to love and forgive others, my willingness to risk my personal well being for another’s well being, and to help those who suffered.
For as long as I can remember, Love has burned in my heart, as a nameless yearning, an aching desire for more, for expansion, and connection. Love has opened my heart to its breaking, driven me to the limits of my hope, my intellect, and my strength over and over. Love continues to draw me beyond myself, and my known world, toward what I can neither fully name, nor live without.
Because of this Love, which will not let me go, I want to live well, even nobly, while I am here on this earth. Faith helps me to do that. I suppose, given all the bad press and worse behavior of some Christians, if I could avoid it, I wouldn’t be a Christian, but it is the best way I know to be whole and free and full of joy.
My friend, Jeff Bean, recently posted this on his Facebook page:
Why do I love the Lord? To learn to love my wife better. Why do I love my wife? To learn to love the Lord better. Life is about perfecting our love.
Like Jeff, life is for me is about perfecting my ability to love, and boy do I need help. This is why I am a Christian.
The Christian faith helps, even makes it possible for me to strive toward that perfection and to love well. A relationship with Love, which remains ever beyond my possession and control, who will not become anyone’s brand or commodity, who stands always beyond in the mystery of Being itself, informs and shapes my relationship with the universe and everything that is in it.
Being a Christian invites me to forgive, which is the only way I know to bring lasting peace. It calls me to be more than I am, more caring, more compassionate, more honest and transparent. It exposes my brokenness and sin – my greed, selfishness, lust, envy, pride – and asks me to take responsibility for it.
Christianity bows before a Power beyond my coercion to whom I am accountable for how I live my life. Christianity offers a community to support, teach, challenge, and love me into greater love.
Christianity gives me a story, a narrative of the journeys and wisdom of others who have struggled and learned to love. In their stories I mine my own story, like a vein of gold woven into the layers of the lives of other people, who have responded to and resisted Love’s call and demands. The multivalent resonance of the Bible, echoing, reflecting, and revealing truth and meaning, connects me with a purpose and a reality larger than my own tedious little drama.
The group of believers, the church, (and yes, sometimes they drive me crazy) asks me to trust in the wisdom of a community as the church keeps forming and reforming itself. Since its beginning the church has been falling down and getting up again, which gives me courage and hope, because I fall down all the time.
Christianity takes me to the extreme limits of my self identity, who I think I am, and draws me through the narrow channel of the cross of suffering to the death of parts of myself, which impede or block the flow of love.
Christianity asks me to go places I want to avoid, to love people I don’t want to love, and to live with integrity and purity of heart in the midst of a world awash in deceit and greed. My faith requires me to resist evil, in all its guises – empires, systems, and institutions – and to commit myself to work for justice and peace.
As a person of faith I discover my security not in what I own or who I know or how much power I possess, but rather in how many possessions and how much power and status I give away.
Finally, in the despised and rejected Palestinian Jewish peasant, who called himself the Son of Love, I am met by a most unlikely lover of my soul, who unfurls endlessly before me, the way, the truth, and the life.
I find in Jesus, who was the enemy, both of religion, and the oppressive empire, the grace to make us one. Here I find the generosity, compassion, and freedom to love even the icky ones – Christians, pagans, Muslims, atheists, Jews, rednecks, republicans, democrats, and my own icky self.
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