There was a time when a separation from the world seemed right. From what I understood through Scripture, God treasured his people, which meant he treasured me. It was wholly within his character to hold me near and guide me through the difficulties of this world, those difficulties being a result of sin–human sin–my sin. I never truly felt the weight of my sin. Sure, I felt guilty when I did wrong things, but that is pretty natural. I’d apologize to God before apologizing to the person I wronged, and the burden sometimes lifted then, for sin is first and foremost against God. This is what a relationship with God looked like for me. I didn’t really fawn over God or speak about God in romantic, girly language. But I loved God, and I respected God. And most of all, I knew that God loved me.
College days were my separation from the world days. That was when I found peers who I really loved who also loved God, and my love for God started to become very real to me. The realer that love became and the more I found “true fellowship” with my Christian friends, the more aware I was of our special separation from the world. I was challenged by notions of evangelism and felt occasional guilt over how rarely I shared my faith with any non-Christian friends and acquaintances. My best friends were my Christian friends. I could expose my whole, true self to them, and I could talk theology with them for hours, knowing the conversation would flow from a deep, spiritual, sacred connection we had as believers. This was amazing. Shared spirituality was amazing. True fellowship was amazing.
What crept up on me was just how not amazing this all started looking when I realized the types of people I knew I couldn’t be close with. Gays, lesbians, hardcore partiers, and others who appear to be “living in sin”. I didn’t hate these people, and I was friends with them to an extent. But I wasn’t best friends with them. I didn’t share deep, spiritual connections with them, because they weren’t part of my sweet, fulfilling community. The notion of this eventually became a bit nagging. I realized that I held myself to a standard that I didn’t expect of “the world.” And very gradually, this started to seem wrong. Arrogant even.
I’ve titled this little reflection of mine, “Toe in the Water,” to pull that metaphor into how I perceive evangelical Christianity. When evangelicals look at and experience the world, they stick a toe in the water. Sometimes when they stick a toe in, they find the water either way too cold or way too hot and retreat. There is this constant forced separation because they were told that water that is too hot or too cold is not water to swim in. It is impure.
Ever since I did take that plunge, if you will, into the too hot/too cold water, I’ve found that it’s not really what I thought it was. I never thought the world was scary, but I knew that there was evil in it. No longer do I suspect that these are shark-infested waters. People are people, and I’ve discovered that I can make true human connections with Christians, non-Christians, partiers, gays, lesbians, and everyone with any sort of passion that reflects my own. I’ve found that when you’re passionate about Scripture, it’s sometimes harder to share passions with people of the world. But when you’re passionate about the world, love is more beautiful and more natural and more bountiful. The world is raw in a great way and more vibrant. Turns out the salvation experience didn’t happen for me when I was eleven like I thought it did. It happened when I turned twenty-three, and it continues as I’m going on twenty-four.
I thought love went no deeper than the gospel. I now believe love can only go deeper than the gospel. Of course people will believe in a narrative about overcoming death. Of course people will believe in an ultimate source of justice. We crave love, acceptance, justice, hope, peace, and all that other stuff promised through the resurrection of Jesus Christ.
Because of this redemptive theme, Christians often pray away things that they believe are bad. They pray away pain, suffering, death, homosexuality, lusts, selfishness, etc. There are so many things that go into the icky basket, and the common understanding of the gospel is that it presents a way out of all those things. It is a way to rise above the suffering and reach for the greater good of God. I know, this all does sound really wonderful, almost fairy tale-like. I can’t say it’s not an attractive pitch.
What bothers me about it is what happens when it’s not enough. What about when the prayers don’t bring solace? What about the pain experienced by the person doubting those promises? I remember when I was in the process of losing my faith, and it was impossible for me to find comfort in any Christian blogs. All they did was wrap pretty bows around their problems. They’d express the troubles of the world and then tack on a Scriptural message of hope on the end or weave Scripture through the post. This nauseated me without fail, and I felt so alienated from the message. I wondered why God was such a comfort to everyone else, and yet my prayers seemed to fall on deaf ears. I’ve ultimately come to realize that salvation isn’t it for me. It’s not enough, and it doesn’t dig at the root of human complexity and need as I’ve come to understand it.
I sat in a restaurant once with some church leaders, and our waitress was not a Christian as far as we could tell. She was super in love with dogs, like obsessively. She was wearing a pink dog watch. Her face lit up when she talked about how she volunteers at the animal shelter and how much she loves her single life with her dogs. Honestly, joy emanated from her face when she spoke about dogs. That joy was something I’ve rarely seen in church. So when the church leaders I was eating with started talking to her about church, I wasn’t surprised to hear that she was generally disinterested, considering her life was pretty fulfilled with all the dogs and such. I remember after she left us, the church leaders joked about how absurd it is that she is so in love with dogs, not humans, not even God.
This gets to my problem with God/Jesus/salvation/all-that-stuff. As I said, it is an amazing narrative and fills a void for some people, but it fills this void in the same way that loving dogs fills a void for our waitress. The commonality between that waitress and those church leaders is that they’ve all dedicated their lives to something they strongly believe in. The commonality is key. This is not a matter of them being right or her being right about which is better: Dog or God. It’s about the sincere driving force underlying the passion, purpose, and joy. What’s amazing is that they share the reality of passion, but instead the church leaders decided to put themselves on higher ground because of the source. That girl left us still loving dogs, and I hope she was oblivious to the judgement those church leaders were actually pouring out on her by suggesting she reconsider the object of her passion.
There is a song by Jars of Clay (originally Rich Mullins) called, “If I Stand.” I always loved that song and still do because it speaks of there being a sense of more.
“If I stand, let me stand on the promise you’ll pull me through, and if I can’t let me fall on the grace that first brought me to you…” “There’s a love that’s fiercer than the love between friends, more gentle than a mother’s when her baby’s at her side.”
It goes on to reach toward the depths of the implications of Christ’s love. The sentimentality of this still moves me, but it doesn’t wholly resonate with me like I always wanted it to. This isn’t because I don’t want to experience a transcendent joy and peace. It’s because that longing often ignores the value of pain and doubt as their own entities, not just entities that lead to Something Greater.
I don’t really have a conclusion on these matters, but I feel very strongly that salvation doesn’t do it for me. It does it for some people, and I respect that. But I need more, both intellectually and emotionally, and I’ll always need more. Once I find more, I’ll still need more. That’s the only way I know how to live, within the mystery of finding more and the possibility of losing it all. I need the possibilities, not the answers.