One of my favorite childhood pictures was taken on my first day of kindergarten, standing shoulder to shoulder with my younger sister—me, with an enormous smile, nearly bursting out of my daisy print dress with excitement, and my sister, arms folded, lower lip at full pout, fuming that she was not yet old enough to be headed to school herself.
It was my first encounter with evangelical Christianity.
When it came time to send me to school, my parents—who were religiously unaffiliated at the time—but aware of Something or Someone they wanted their children to have the chance to know, enrolled us in a local Christian elementary school.
It doesn't take much for me to conjure up vivid memories of Friday morning chapels in the carpeted basement of that creaky old building on Wynooksi Street, learning hand motions to songs about this God who was love, love, and more love. Or sitting criss-cross apple sauce on a carpet square with frayed edges, listening to women with round, kind faces read from leather bound Bibles laying open on the folds of their floor length skirts, telling us stories of a man named Jesus who was a friend of the unlikely and left out, whose message about his Kingdom, where the last were first and the poor were blessed, made the powerful shake in their boots.
In middle school and high school, my teachers would stress that truth not only existed, but mattered, and that character was more important than wealth or pride or appearances.
When the accuser came, they'd say, recounting the old gospel story, offering Jesus all the Kingdoms of the world and their splendor in exchange for his worship, he refused, citing the command to worship the Lord our God, and serve him only.
For what good would it be, to gain the whole world, but lose your soul?
It was my evangelical college that first taught me about justice—that God's very heartbeat was for the restoration and redemption of all things. Want to know about true religion? they'd quote from the book of James. True religion is to care for widows and orphans in their time of need.
They said the world would know us by our love, and as the Good Book stresses, we were supposed to love the immigrant and the refugee in particular—anyone whose color, creed or class made them vulnerable. After all, as the beloved disciple wrote, no one has ever seen God, but if we love each other, God's love comes alive in us, and is brought to full expression in us.
They told tales of Israel's prophets calling Kings to account for their mistreatment of the poor or their exploitation of women. God didn't care about ritual for ritual's sake—no, the true worship he desired was that we treat each other justly, love mercy, and walk humbly!
He gave justice and help to the poor and needy, and everything went well for him. Isn't that what it means to know God? Or so said Scripture.
And Scripture? It was to be believed and obeyed, even when it was inconvenient or difficult, or came with personal or public cost. Moral relativism was dangerous, they said, a slippery slope. But happy was he who walked in the ways of the righteous, whose path was lit by the lamp of God's word.
One of their most loved soap boxes was the belief that every life was precious, and worth defending. The sanctity of life! they'd say with conviction. Human dignity! Each one made by God!
It wasn't until many of them started coming up with reasons why black boys deserved to die, that I wondered if it just applied to babies.
Over the past year, I've questioned every last bit of it.
Jesus? I still love him. I still think his is the most radical, inclusive, soul searing message I've ever heard. I still believe his heart beats for justice, and that his love is fierce enough to make everything broken in us beautiful again.
But I've wondered about this community, that was supposed to be his hands and feet, the ones who, for a time, would not be caught in public without their colorful fabric bracelets that asked what would Jesus do? Did they still believe all the things they once told me were true?
I've wept and screamed and lost sleep for local, national, and world events, but on a more personal level, for the tradition that birthed me, that so often finds reason to give up the very people we are called to protect for thirty pieces of silver. For truly, whatever you did to one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did to me.
And in the ensuing quiet, I whisper, Father forgive me.
Forgive me for the self righteousness that so desperately wants to believe that none of what I protest, is alive and well in me.
For all of it is, in one form or another—prejudice, pride, greed. Fear of the other, & that which I do not understand. A belief in my own superiority to those who do not look or think or talk like me. A desire to be absolved of the ugliness in my own heart, without first making recompense to those I've caused pain.
I am not so different from what I grieve in the church that bore me.
Maybe this is the moment it all burns down, the great match that generates enough heat to melt our golden calves into the puddles of nothing they were all along. I've got a few things to throw onto the fire, and watch turn into embers swirling above the heap.
Maybe this is the decisive in-break of the Spirit, offering us a chance to break free of our allegiance to anything but Christ, and rise from the ashes as something more holy and true than we were before.
To be, as it were, born again.