A few weeks ago, renowned author Anne Rice put out a statement. It was short and to the point, informing the world that "as of today I am no longer a Christian." She went on to affirm her belief in and love for Christ and to list the reasons she was abandoning church and Christianity. Some applauded her move. Others dismissed the statement as wrong-headed and judged her. I could not do neither.
I understood her and, as one who came ever so close to such a renunciation of my affiliation with the Christian community, my heart broke for her. I agreed with her assessment of many of the public voices rising from groups claiming to follow Christ. I am apalled by the rhetoric of hate flowing from the mouths of those who share my faith in Christ. I think, however, Ms. Rice was wrong in denouncing the name "Christian" as a way to disassociate herself with those actions that seem utterly unchristlike. Let me share my thinking -- and my story -- here.
Christianity and the church are flawed representations of Christ on Earth, just as we as individual Christians ("little Christs") consistently fail to live fully into the example of Christ. We hurt one another, sometimes out of pig-headed judgment and arrogance and other times unknowingly, by simply missing the larger repercussions of following our heart. We have come from God and will return to God. But while on this planet that is our temporary home, we are spiritual beings who belong to God even as we are walking in a strange world. I have come to believe we are here to see fully and to be God's presence to one another. We are here to serve one another in love. The crux of the matter is that we must learn to do so in a highly imperfect and downright contentious environment.
Where I'm Coming From
Eleven years ago, I was asked to leave, rather abruptly, the congregation that was my community of faith. At the time, it was one of the few things I had left. Divorced and the single mother of a young son, I found myself frightened and alone. Very alone. I had lost a job I considered a calling for reasons not clear to me. Physically and emotionally exhausted, I had spent a week in a hospital, which left me more clear about what was in my heart but just as confused about how to live as ever before. I was in the grips of a severe biochemical imbalance (bipolar disorder) that would go undiagnosed for several more years.
My church sent me a cursory letter demanding that I show up at a specified time and place or leave and never come back. I cancelled an out-of-town trip that could have netted me new work to show up. The "meeting" was damanging in ways I cannot begin to describe and led to a deep division in my soul. In essence, it was a spiritual lynching. I was told to "go and sin no more" without any clear description whatsoever of what supposed sin I had committed. For months and years after, I would see various members of this congregation -- people I had prayed and fellowshipped with -- and they would largely ignore me and refuse to acknowledge me when I spoke to them in love and kindness. It crushed me.
The first time I attempted to return to a church, I spent two days being violently, physically ill. So, for a time, to protect my own energy and sanity, I let it go. God revealed to me that I would be held and kept safe. I held to this promise even though I would experience the terrifying presence of evil in the long desert years to follow.
Through it all, my love for Jesus Christ has not wavered. My faith in God has been shaken through my journey, but it remains the root of who I am today. I could no more separate it from me than I could change my genetic code. I believe it is true that nothing, no-thing and no-body, can separate any of us from the love of God. When we encounter evil or negligence in the body of Christ, we must see it for what it is -- dis-ease or disconnection somewhere in that body. And only love can heal that. While I believe it is sometimes necessary to withdraw for a time from the larger Christian community, I know we are all connected.
What I've Learned
It's this simple: I call myself a Christian because I follow Christ.
In the many years since this traumatic experience, many have asked me how I can possibly associate myself with "Christians." They want to know why I would want to. I can't answer those questions very well. What I can assert with absolute conviction is that I believe in Jesus Christ, the way, the truth and the life. The way of Christ is gentle and not at all a rigid, regimented, rule-based way that threatens to cut the life right out of us. It is a beuatiful unfolding.
Certain individuals within the church who know my story claim that the people who instigated actions against me long ago are not Christians at all. "They are imposters," they have said of that other congregation. "They are deluded with power." These people claim what happened to me could never, ever happen in their congregation. It was a fluke.
I think it can happen anywhere. Anytime. I think being human leads us to attack that which we don't understand. We are quick to judge and condemn, and we do so in the name of Christian correction, discipline or what we consider best for someone else. Even those of us who would wash our hands of such actions remain tainted by our less than christlike thoughts.
At the Presbyterian church I sometimes attend, we stand together to recite "The Apostle's Creed." There is a line toward the end that affirms belief in the "holy catholic (this means worldwide, not Catholic with the capital "c") church," "the communion of saints," "the forgiveness of sins," and "the life everlasting." I used to just stop talking when we said the line about the church. And my heart would feel as if it was being stabbed repeatedly when the congregation affirmed it's belief in the communion of saints -- my deepest passions and purpose center around this concept and yet I had experienced a cruel ostracization because I exhibited human flaws while coping with the manifestation of a biochemical imbalance and many other life challenges. I think that is what keeps me coming back, or trying to anyway. I return to the fold that marked me and banished me because I know it is where I belong.
Where I'm Going To
What I realized was that my witholding my support for the Church or the church or groups of Christians or the communion of saints, from which I continued to feel hatred at worst and nonchalant indifference at best, was serving no one. I knew that if Jesus were standing here he would not force me to submit myself to repeated injury, but he might nudge me to stand tall in my own skin and to simply be among those who had hurt me and know that I am loved by God and that is all I need. Above all, I came to believe that it was my duty as a follower of Christ to do my best to show up and to be a voice, however small, for resurrection love, for reformation, for forgiveness, for unity.
Honestly, when I first made it back to a pew, many years after my shunning, I would nearly throw up. I would have migraines for days afterward. I had several trained pyschologists and medical professionals, who by the way were Christians, tell me unequivocally to avoid churches altogether and find other ways of expressing my faith. I wanted to. I still want to, and I am only sporadic in my church attendance even today, a decade later. Ultimately, I decided I must be the change I want to see. This is hard. This is so hard it makes me want to cry. Or spit. Or surrender. But I walk on, reaching for something more, believing in redemption.
So Anne, I don't judge you. I actually understand you. I feel compassion for you, and I truly believe you will be held through this time. I am sorry for the people and ideas that have been as an avalanche that seems to completely contradict what Jesus Christ, our Lord and Savior, came to teach. The mantle of Christianity is yours. You may throw it off, but I have a feeling the One who is the way, the truth and the life will cling to you like a Love you have never known. Even as we walk through this strange place that is not our home.