Revisiting Christianity

Before

In the very early days of this blog, I was still in high school.  I started it the summer before my senior year, when I still identified myself as a Christian and still tried to read my Bible every day.  I had “professed” (if you can call it that) faith in Christ at 8 years old, but had only really begun exploring Christianity in 8th grade, when I met my friend Paula.  Paula, whose dad was a pastor, moved here from Florida and was (and still is) a strong Christian.  She encouraged me to be intentional about the faith I had chosen as an 8-year-old, and I began doing the typical Christian things — I read my Bible every day and tried to pray.  But while I enjoyed the intellectual aspect of studying religion (and the friendships that came with Bible study groups), I never truly enjoyed being a Christian.  I mostly felt guilty instead.  So when this blog began, I was still trying.  A lot of my very early posts reference God or the Bible studies I was doing at the time.  But by then, my senior year of high school, trying to be a good person and a good Christian was wearing on me.  I started getting tired of it.  By the time I finished my freshman year of college, I decided that being my own, independent person did not include calling myself a Christian.

College

I know I’m only a few months removed, but my college years were some of the best of my life.  I felt more free to be completely me (and that girl really isn’t too different than “Christian” Sarah — just less guilty).  I learned to speak Spanish.  I began blogging really regularly and found that it’s not just a hobby, it’s something I want to do for a long time.  And I met my two best friends, one of whom will become my husband (in only 32 days, in case you’re curious).  It was a really fun time, and I grew up a lot.  I also fell into a more relaxed stance with Christianity, not claiming the Christian title but not completely ruling it out in the future, either.

Now

Right now, getting married is my main focus.  All the details are falling into place.  (And god, will I be glad when planning is over.)  Christopher and I, after booking food, clothes, and flowers, finally found someone to do our wedding and premarital counseling.  Part of the reason it took us so long to find someone was because 1) we are living together and didn’t think either of our home pastors would be okay with that, and 2) neither of us knew what kind of ceremony we wanted, anyway, since both of us grew up Christian but can’t really call ourselves that sincerely.

My mom (bless her) finally convinced me to talk to an old friend about doing our counseling — Paula’s dad, the pastor from Florida.  I agreed because as much as I dislike admitting it, my mom is right a lot of the time, and I was also really feeling the stress about having an entire wedding put together but no one to actually do the thing.  So a couple weeks ago, during a whirlwind of bridal showers, we sat down and talked to Paul.  As I suspected, he started out asking us both about our faith, which was a little uncomfortable.  But once he figured out where we both stand, he explained that he would be happy to do our counseling, as long as we were both open to really and truly considering Christianity again.

That seemed fair to both of us.  So now we are meeting with Paul once a week via Facebook video, where we’re doing 30 minutes of traditional premarital counseling and 30 minutes of faith discussion.  He’s given us a book to read, and also asked that we read certain books of the Bible.  He knows we are both fact-based people, and like it when we can see evidence of something, so he’s tailoring our discussions that way rather than talk about how much Christianity makes people feel.  So far, it’s been enjoyable, and it’s sparked discussions between Christopher and I.

Right now, I’m taking a school-like approach to it, because that’s what I know how to do.  I’m taking notes on what I think, and trying to look at the Bible objectively, instead of giving the “church answer.”  In our sessions, we’ve already established the fact that choosing to be a Christian shouldn’t be taken lightly — an 8-year-old cannot possibly fully understand what it is to be a Christian and truly make that commitment.  It takes more thought and consideration than what we typically tell kids in the church today (and that’s a whole other issue we may or may not discuss here later).  So, instead of completely rejecting Christianity, I am beginning to take a hard look at what real Christianity truly requires, and then I’ll decide if that’s what I want for myself.

It’s a little uncomfortable, because I’m afraid of what might happen if one of us, after really considering Christianity, decides to take it on and the other doesn’t.  But I guess we’ll cross that bridge when we come to it.

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Book Review: Confessions of a Secular Jesus Follower by Tom Krattenmaker

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Goodreads Synopsis:

Tom Krattenmaker is part of a growing conversation centered at Yale University that acknowledges—and seeks to address—the abiding need for meaning and inspiration in post-religious America. What, they ask, gives a life meaning? What constitutes a life well led?

In Confessions of a Secular Jesus Follower, Krattenmaker shares his surprising conclusion about where input and inspiration might best be found: in the figure of Jesus. And Jesus, not only as a good example and teacher, but Jesus as the primary guide for one’s life.

Drawing on sociological research, personal experience, and insights from fifteen years studying and writing on religion in American public life, Krattenmaker shows that in Jesus, nonreligious people like himself can find unique and compelling wisdom on how to honor the humanity in ourselves and others, how to build more peaceful lives, how generosity can help people and communities create more abundance, how to break free from self-defeating behaviors, and how to tip the scales toward justice.

In a time when more people than ever are identifying as atheist or agnostic, Confessions of a Secular Jesus Follower is a groundbreaking and compelling work that rediscovers Jesus–and our own best selves–for the world of today.

Before I mention anything else: if you are a professing, practicing Christian, this is probably not the book for you.  Krattenmaker is not a Christian himself, and is open about this.  He evens explicitly mentions that since he is not a Christian, he is fine with taking parts of a whole from the Jesus story and learning from those parts alone (ie, not in context with the entirety of the Bible).  He tries to take more of a historical, sociological perspective than an internal one.  But if it is against your beliefs to study the Jesus story this way, this book will likely make you more angry than anything.

That said, I enjoyed this.  Krattenmaker takes Jesus out of the Christian context and studies what has been written about him in order to gain some perspective for his own life.  The book is separated into topics such as sexuality, religious tolerance, and politics, and Krattenmaker uses specific anecdotes from the Gospels to illustrate how Jesus reacted to different situations.  The overall message is that Jesus acted differently than most humans tend to.  While we separate the world into “us” versus “them,” Jesus didn’t see it that way, and treated everyone individually.  In his eyes, every single person had value, and he interacted with them as such.  That, Krattenmaker says, is what all humans should strive for.

So if I liked it, why did I just give it 3 stars?  For starters, Krattenmaker tends to repeat himself.  Some things do bear repeating, but it felt to me like he kept restating the same few ideas over and over.  Perhaps this is because he used only 4 books from the Bible — the Gospels — but then, this makes sense because those are the only primary accounts of Jesus’ actual life.  The rest of the Bible deals with events before and after.  So even though I liked what Krattenmaker had to say, I found myself skimming the book after the first few pages of each chapter.

As for the final verdict, I would recommend this to anyone struggling with religion or lack of it.  This book can be used as a jumping-off point for those who are floundering.  It highlights the fact that Jesus really is a great example for everyone, even if the Christian church isn’t always.  If taken to heart, the principles detailed allow for the better understanding of others, and that’s never a bad thing.  This is something I would even give to a Christian who is disheartened or dissatisfied with their faith.  Taking Jesus out of the religious context, while definitely not orthodox, can be a good reminder of why Christianity began in the first place.

This book was provided to me for free from Blogging for Books in exchange for this honest review.  Image from Goodreads.

What I Realized About Christianity My Freshman Year of College

Over Christmas break, I met with one of the few friends from high school I still talk to.  It had been over a year since I’d seen her, we figured out, and it was nice to catch up.  While we sat drinking coffee, we started discussing how each of us had changed since high school.  As it turns out, neither of us are all that enamored with Christianity anymore.  As we talked, I put something into words that I didn’t quite realize had occurred until that moment.  I mentioned that one of the reasons I grew disenchanted with Christianity was honestly because college was the first time I realized that non-Christians can be good people.  Imagine that, right?  I know it sounds stupid (because it is), but that’s honestly what I thought.  It wasn’t a conscious thing; it was just a very black and white worldview. 

 If you’ve followed my blog for awhile, you might remember that I was homeschooled.  Homeschooling is becoming more prolific these days, but there are still stereotypes — homeschoolers are all prudish, strict Christians who don’t trust the government with their kids, and all their kids are naive and sheltered, and none of them know what birth control is — okay, so it’s not that bad (at all — I’ll give you the side-eye if you actually believe that about homeschoolers).  But I know it is easy to assume that we are more sheltered than kids who went to “real” school.

We can get into my thoughts on all that another time.  But for me, the accurate description is not that I was sheltered, but that I was ignorant and self-absorbed (more so than now, anyway).  Yes, the homeschooling community where I’m from is made up of a lot of Christians, but there were plenty of other religions and non-religious people in the mix as well, and there was never any hate against those who weren’t Christians.  The large Christian presence had more to do with the fact that I live in the Bible belt than that I associated with other homeschoolers.  Also, being a Christian does not mean adherence to one exact set of beliefs — some are more liberal and some are more conservative, like with any belief system.  But in high school, I was more worried about my appearance and fitting in than I was about finding nuance in my community.  It just wasn’t on my radar.

When I started college, I quickly met a core group of friends that I hung out with all the time, plus random acquaintances from classes.  Again, because I live in the South, a lot of people do claim Christianity as their religion, but I quickly realized that not all of them really practiced.  I joined the Baptist student ministry, where 90% of the students claim Christianity, and ended up not really liking a lot of them.  Then I would meet other people in different settings, decide I liked them, and then realize they did not claim Christianity in any way, shape, or form.  I also watched one of my friends from my core group kind of have her own falling out with religion, and didn’t appreciate her any less as a friend.  I didn’t realize what was happening at the time, but it was sort of a wake-up call.

I had a few issues with Christianity before college even started, too.  In high school, I kept an on-again, off-again pattern of reading my Bible every day and keeping a prayer journal.  It was more of a discipline than an enjoyment, but that was okay because everything good in life takes work.  My main problem was that I never felt good enough.  I know that by traditional Christian belief, Jesus died for me, and nothing that I could ever do or fail to do could change that.  But still, there are a set of moral principles that Christians are expected to live by, and I’m not perfect.  I knew what I was supposed to do and not do, and I kept doing the wrong thing for one reason or the other.  I was probably too hard on myself.  But then I didn’t think I was hard enough.  This led to feelings of guilt whenever I thought about my spiritual life, and that added on to insecurities about acne and my desirability to males and all those other things that characterize high school was not good.  So when I started college with an already-fading desire to continue with Christianity, and then realized that there are a lot of types of people in the world, I kind of dropped it.

That I thought Christianity was the only “right,” “good” religion wasn’t an attempt to turn me against others. I assume I would have been the same way if I had grown up Jewish or Muslim or anything else. And I don’t regret or resent being raised the way I was at all — on the contrary, I respect my parents for instilling in me the set of morals that they thought would turn me into the best person I can be. Really, my regret is that I was actually naive enough to think that to be Christian equals everything good in the world, and everything else must be bad or wrong. I know now there’s much more nuance. I feel silly not to have known that then. 

Discussion: LifeWay’s Decision to Pull Jen Hatmaker’s Products

On October 25, this interview with Jen Hatmaker was published on religionnews.com.  In it, she talks about her views on Trump (dislikes) and Clinton (open to supporting), the Black Lives Matter movement (supports), and LGBT rights (supports).  Two days later, LifeWay pulled her materials from its stores because of her opinions on LGBT rights.

First off, let me just clarify that obviously, LifeWay is a private company.  They have every right to pick and choose what they make available to customers.  We live in a free country, and if LifeWay doesn’t want to sell a product for whatever reason, they are perfectly within their rights not to sell it.  I understand that.

That said, I think their choice was a little bit silly.  I looked through Jen Hatmaker’s website for the books she has written, and while I must admit I’ve never read any of them, none of the descriptions seem to insinuate that they have anything to do with what Christians should believe about the LGBT community.  They’re what you would expect from a well-established Christian author — devotionals for women of all ages, a 7-month plan to combat excess in 7 areas of life, and a few in depth Bible study books.  If you hadn’t read the interview, you would never know her views on LGBT people.

Second, Jen Hatmaker is not the only Christian who supports LGBT rights.  Those two things are not mutually exclusive.  By pulling her materials, LifeWay robs its customers of the freedom to choose their own Christian role models.  It’s almost as if they do not trust their customers to pick the “right” materials, even though the majority of their customers are church leaders who have had extensive training in ministry and theology.

Finally, a good friend brought up this question: if Hatmaker weren’t so high profile, would LifeWay would have cared about the interview?  Do they extensively research every single author, artist, and publisher whose products they carry, and reject them if they don’t exactly match what LifeWay believes?  If not, how do they know they aren’t carrying products by authors who are even more liberal than Jen Hatmaker?

By October 31, Hatmaker published the below post on her Facebook page in response to LifeWay’s actions.  In my eyes, she handled the ordeal with grace.

Hi, everyone.

A couple of quick thoughts on all these tender things:

1. First, regardless of what you see from strangers on the internet, our real friends and ministry partners and colleagues and fellow pastors have been across the board, carte blanche, by the dozens and dozens and dozens…kind and good to Brandon and I this week. Every one of them. We can’t even keep up with it. So know that regardless of headlines, we have very much experienced a faithful witness to Jesus through our friends in our real life this week. They give the church a beautiful name worthy of its source.

2. I’m not here to defend or explain right now. I have very open hands here. I have nothing to protect, nothing worth losing that I am not afraid to lose. I have zero agenda for myself. I don’t feel self-protective or defensive or scared or angry. I am neither trying to gain applause or start a war. Some people are throwing parades and some are burning books, but I am not motivated by either; I’m neither overly encouraged or overly discouraged. If you believe the hype, you have to also believe the hate, and neither is fully true. Some are certain I am after “the approval of people,” but here is the truth: I don’t love the approval of people, but I do love people. I love them because Jesus’ love for us is so insane and big and outside our templates and it reaches and reaches and reaches past our comforts to draw people to Him, and He does this with or without our permissions and sanctions and rules and hierarchies, and He has done it for all of time and will continue to do it for all of time. We are standing outside the city gates with people He asked us to stand with, and that is the beginning and end of it.

3. The time will come to discuss and talk about this together, but know this: we deeply, sincerely, with our minds and hearts both engaged, including perspectives all along the spectrum, in deep discussions with people we trust and respect, with prayer and careful study and deliberation moved into this space. We wrestled with and through Scripture, not around it. Our view of the Word is still very high, as is it for the hundreds of thousands of faithful believers who believe likewise.

4. Regardless of your position, please remember this as you respond, discuss, and take this conversation to both your Facebook walls and your dining room tables this week: all around you, the LGBTQ community is watching. They are listening. They are watching how we respond, how we talk about them, how we actually feel about them in our churches. They are your neighbors, your colleagues, they are in your churches already, some of them are in your homes, some of them are your children and you don’t know it. Most of them are quiet because they are scared. With good and obvious reason. But they are beautiful people loved by Jesus and no matter what, we should speak in a way befitting the way of grace, the same way that found and saved and redeemed and healed us too. Please don’t mistakenly take me to the mat in public or private and imagine it doesn’t carry weight with tender, beloved people who are bearing witness to all this.

I love you sincerely. I am always grateful to be your sister. All of you. And I hold those of you who are angry or shocked or confused with me this week very tenderly, too. I love you and I am here in the tension, committed to our little community and to all these sisters of mine. I am still here, hands open. Please remember with kindness and mercy the eyes on my page this week, so impossibly dear to God.

In Response to the Very Worst Missionary

A few weeks ago, I wrote this post about why I don’t pray anymore.  And then, you know, because life and people are funny that way, I was told to read this post by Jamie the Very Worst Missionary (which you should at least go skim before you read on).  In her post, Jamie brings up some fantastic points that I’ve never heard anyone, let alone anyone in the church, voice before while still maintaining a positive attitude toward prayer.  It was extremely refreshing, to be honest, and it got me thinking.  Some of the points she made correlated strongly to my past experience with Christianity.

Initially, I was turned off by seeing so many flippant promises of prayer from people I knew wouldn’t actually follow though.

When I read this line, I just wanted to jump through my computer screen and find Jamie and look her in the eyes and say, “Yes.” Because this has been a source of discomfort for me ever since I got serious about Christianity in the 8th grade.  Although in my experience, it hasn’t been promises from other people so much as it has been my own promises that were flippant.  I have had and still have many, many friends who I know would actually, sincerely pray for any request on a regular basis if I asked.  No, it has been me who has said, “I’ll be praying for you,” and then barely followed through.  For a long time, praying for others was something I wanted to do, but it hardly ever felt sincere.  Sometimes I didn’t know enough about the situation to pray effectively, and other times I grew tired of repeating the same prayers over and over without seeing any actual change.  But telling others I was praying for them still felt like something I should do.  If I didn’t pray for others, was I really a good Christian?  So I would tell people I would pray for them in hopes that the verbal commitment would force me (read: guilt me) into actually praying for them.  It, like the rest of my Christian experience, turned into a huge cycle of guilt.

I was told to bring all my cares to God, no matter how trivial or small, because He wants to hear all of it. Right? But it felt weird to pray to God for a sunny vacation and, also? War and famine and orphans.

Again, yes.  This was another huge struggle for me.  I had so many friends whose parents were divorcing, who had terminally ill family members, who had friends with mental disorders.  I knew that there was poverty all around me and people who didn’t have heat in the winter and people who had to beg for food and shelter.  It felt so much like I should be thankful for my own trivial problems that I felt like such an asshole praying for them.  My prayers, many of which are saved forever in my journals, focused so much on myself and on my own struggles and that felt wrong.  And then, if I mentioned it to anyone, I was “given perspective” and reminded of all the other, much bigger problems in the world.

I am not trying to sound like a bitch here.  It was simply that this was another thing that made me feel guilty — I felt like I couldn’t pray for my own problems because they didn’t matter that much.  I felt like I should be happy with my life at all times because it was (and is) so much better than the lives of others.  And if I wasn’t happy, I was doing something wrong.  Again, a cycle of guilt.  Since I didn’t know how to pray for others, and I didn’t feel like I should pray for myself, I just quit.

We pray because the God who knows us and sees us also connects us.

My philosophy is that life is about people and relationships.  I’m not a people person — given the choice between a good book and a crowd of people I’ll take the book any day.  I’ve never been one to initiate friendships — all the close friendships I’ve ever had have been initiated by the other person.  However, I dearly, dearly love those I’m close to.  I really do get a lot from the times I do reach out to people, and I love to sit and discuss anything and everything with my friends.  Humans thrive on love, and to me, prayer is a tool to bring us closer.  I understand that the point is to bring us closer to God, but the few times that I have actively prayed with people, I have ended up feeling much closer to them than to Him.  For some people, growing closer to God brings them closer to other people. For me, I think it’s the opposite way around.

As I’ve said before, I don’t know whether I’ll ever make my way back into the church, or what that will look like if I do.  However, reading posts like Jamie’s and knowing that there are people in the church who aren’t completely satisfied with the “Christian” expectations makes me feel validated, and also like there’s hope.  It makes me feel like me own viewpoint isn’t so very alien, and maybe there’s a place for me where I don’t have to hide how I truly feel.  It makes me feel like I’ll actually find that place someday, rather than forever turning my back on the religion I grew up in like I thought I was going to have to do.

I remembered this song by Brandon Heath before I remembered that the Writing 101 prompt for today was “your three favorite songs.”  I’m not a huge fan of contemporary Christian music anymore (that’s a post for another day), but this song fits perfectly with my thoughts today.  I encourage you to listen through the chorus at least!

Disclaimer:  I did not respond to every single point in Jamie’s post, just the ones that spoke to me specifically.  I recommend reading her whole post even if you aren’t religious!