Walking wounded

I’ve been curmudgeoning at a … revival? It portrays itself as such: Big Tent Christianity is the brainchild of a group of people who are part of the “emerging church” and/or representatives of a progressive evangelical slice of the Christian church.

Curmudgeoning? I’m skeptical, is all. And tired of talk … so so tired of talk. Which means you’ll need a shaker of salt for anything I have to say in words. But I did get a touch today, and would have followed it to a prayer bench, contentedly. Okay, not contentedly. I’m not contented about anything these days. But going to prayer, on my knees, would have felt right. And I would have. But it’s not that kind of revival. (Which, in my curmudgeonly state, means it’s not really a revival.)

The touch came from Brian McLaren, who is a professional Christian, best-selling author and leading-light interpreter of things emergent. (His link to one of my blog entries last Advent brought Day at a Glance its highest visitor count ever.) In a brief reflection today – I’m not sure what the assigned topic or question was – he spoke about the wounds he has received, and how he has been thinking about them. I’m not sure why he is wounded. I’m not sure what the wounds are; and really, neither of those things are the most important point (to me, today, although I’m sure they matter to him).

My immediate reaction – after feeling intrigued and interested (“Here is someone being pretty real …”) – was “Well, yes, brother, woundedness is pretty much what happens to Christians taking the whole Christian thing seriously.” But that’s getting ahead. Let me report briefly a few things he said (at least, according to my scribbles).

McLaren was talking about learning that part of you dies when you leave a belief system behind. (I’ve given this a little thought myself, having left behind [uncritical embeddedness in] belief systems such as fundamentalist hellfire and brimstone Southern Baptism, racism*, materialism*, patriarchy*, colonialism*, and compulsory heterosexuality. We’ll come back to these, as well as their asterisks.) And he was talking about the woundedness accompanying those deaths.

McLaren enumerated his wounds, thereby taking us beyond the happy-talk of “we are so smart and progressive and liberated,” and risking disapprobation along the lines of “Where does a privileged white man get off talking about woundedness?”

McLaren acknowledged the pain he felt at the loss of members from his church as a result of things he said and did, that he felt he needed to say and do. He further acknowledged that there were new members who came because of those same things: but that did not and does not mitigate the loss of the individuals who left. I get that. They were particular people. I suspect McLaren the pastor loved them. As individuals. And yes, it hurt when they left, and he felt their loss in his body.

He spoke also of the loss of friends, again I think because of stances he took.

McLaren described in some detail the pain of losing a sense of belonging, and how this especially happened when he came to identify with and be in relationship with people who were “other.” The more he became a friend of “them,” the less he could be part of the “us” he had belonged to before. Yep. I get that, too. It is in these losses that we begin to learn the true nature of belonging, friendship, and relationship.

He talked about the loss of simplicity: that with every new friend, with every new claim on his life from someone he had learned he was called to love – including others and enemies – how the complexity grew. Roger that …

(Funny, in a conversation earlier in the day I’d mentioned to a new acquaintance the idea that the simplicity found in the wake of complexity was preferable … so much so I knew I needed to find its source. Oliver Wendell Holmes, it turns out: I would not give a fig for the simplicity this side of complexity, but I would give my life for the simplicity on the other side of complexity.)

And finally, he mentioned the loss of rights. This one I cannot tell you so much about, because I immediately translated what he was saying into an argument. “No, Brian,” I wanted to say. “Those are not rights. Those are privileges you were giving up, or that were stripped away from you, as you came to no longer be complicit with the tacit agreement on which they depended, whether white privilege or male camaraderie or straight ubiquity or Christian monolithicism.”

When you make friends with the people your people consider “other,” you join their otherness. To a degree. You lose unquestioned privilege. What’s important to acknowledge is the world will try to hand you those privileges back, at the price of reassuming complicity. Of course, that reassumed complicity would never be complete; nor would the privilege be. But, in my experience, that’s the way it works.

McLaren acknowledged that there were gains to each of these wounds, and enumerated some of these gains. But that was not the point of his talk this afternoon. Part of me wishes he’d also gone there, because I am finding that the world needs to know that the joy of what you have turned toward is more than worth the wounding of the turning away, and the being turned away from. But there is a certain integrity in the simple acknowledgement of the woundedness.

So, thank you for the courage of that, Mr. McLaren.

I want to say another thing that I thought this afternoon. The woundedness he described? It’s what I went through in committing to being not just a white person, but a white person seeking to living into an anti-racist identity. It’s what I went through in acknowledging my gayness, and committing to living into a queer-liberative identity. (Remember those asterisks? I am not kidding myself. I cannot fully step away from racism, materialism, patriarchy, colonialism … the best I can do on a lot of days is be critical. Try. Thinking about what it might look like to choose love over unconscious acceptance of privilege.)

Frankly, I think every person in the room – and every person who espouses a Christian identity – ought to be able to completely identify with what McLaren described. In fact, it should have been so commonplace as to be nearly unremarkable, and so perhaps not have even been mentioned. Because what was being described were the costs of conversion: to love, to solidarity, to liberation, to a deeper discipleship. Jesus wasn’t kidding when he said “count the cost.” (Luke 14:28)

I did not experience these costs at my first conversion: I was just 8, afraid as hell of hell as my Southern Baptist preacher was preaching it. But I went through refiner’s fire in committing to learning and living into an anti-racist identity … and in accepting being gay, which God insisted was good news, although it seemed to me it would cost me everything (and it nearly did). It was in those two experiences, compared and critically assessed, that I began to learn the nature of conversion: its costs, and its joys.

“By his stripes we are healed.” Yes, and by our own, as we accept that the critical consciousness we have so painfully gained is of reality as it is, a reality not to be turned away from, for all of its pain, because its clarity has a beauty and life-giving power that cannot and will not be denied.

It helps us survive life on Mount Nebo. If we dare compare ourselves to Moses, we can realize that once God lets us see what we are dreaming of, we will hurt for the rest of our lives not only over what we have lost, but for that which has not yet been achieved. So, not only is there the woundedness, the pain of what is lost, but there is also the pain of what has not yet been gained.

One more thing, for we white first-worlder folks. Let’s not kid ourselves that our pain is special. People of color experience every life ill in disproportionate numbers because of racism. Tens of thousands of children are dying of hunger every day. Our pain is manageable, and called for. We are, after all, working out our own salvation. Fear and trembling — and yes, woundedness — comes with the territory.

Enough of words. I will go back into that conference tomorrow, although the words have become so painful. Who wants to talk of dancing, when there is dancing to be done? I do not want to talk theology, or Bible, or justice. I want to do it.

Thank God, I am beginning to find the little working communities in which to do it. They are outside the church; and so my experiential life is fragmented (though my identity is not; no, we are whole and integral, are we not, wounded ones). There is my worshiping community over here; there is my interfaith community over there; and there is my dismantling racism community over there. And here is my family, and there my friends … and the stretching to reach can itself feel like a wounding.

But it is not. It is simply life: a life full of feeling, and passion, and desire, and refusal to be limited by time or space or boundaries. I am so in love with God, and with the beauty surrounding me, and the grace that showers upon me. I have to trust God will keep leading me into deeper, more connected life, if I will keep opening my heart.

There are little deaths along the way. It’s all right. It has to be. How else do we welcome resurrection power into our lives?

I have said before that for a resurrection people, we Christians are not good at death. This shows in our anxiety in the last year of life (Study after study shows that those who have claimed the greatest religiosity are the ones who request the most intervention in the last year of life … why? Why do we call it giving up, when someone is finally ready to go Home?), and in the anxiety of our churches (How many members? How big a budget? Why do we keep building bigger barns when Jesus has made it plain it profits us not? This night our lives may be required of us.).

I’ll take the wounds; I’ll take the little deaths. Jesus has shown me this much. If I open my hands for this, the result will be more than I could ever have asked or imagined.

I will walk on, into that mystery. I will keep looking for companions. And I will keep walking. A pilgrim heart can do no less.

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