Growing up in an evangelical church, I learned at an early age that following Jesus was obeying rules. Why did God send all those plagues to Egypt? Because Pharaoh disobeyed God. So you know, obey the rules kids unless you really like frogs. As I got older, I learned that teenage boys’ lust problems were my responsibility and if I didn’t dress “modestly”, they were going to have to gouge out their eyes, and it would be all my fault. So make sure your shorts go past your fingertips or those guys will go blind.
If you make a mistake, don’t let it show. Don’t admit fault. If someone calls you out — which probably won’t happen because in the South passive aggression is an art form — deflect. Deflect like a Jedi facing destroyer droids. Don’t deal with problems. Just pretend they don’t exist. And above all, don’t rock the boat. Everything is tidy and neat. Don’t mess it up.
Somehow, I’m still into this whole Jesus thing.
So how did my faith survive? Short answer: by the grace of God.
Long answer: I had the privilege of becoming part of a few communities that were deeply committed to living out and sharing their faith in the messiness of the world. Far from retreating into a Christian subculture or attempting to police the world according to Biblical morals, they faithfully lived and loved people who didn’t fit neatly into Church life. They had grace for others, but what astonished me the most was that they had grace for themselves. They could admit fault, repent, and seek forgiveness. It was just one of the rhythms of the community. I had never seen that lived out before, and it was so freeing.
The things I had always read in the life of Jesus finally started to make sense in light of a community trying to live them out. Jesus forgave a woman caught in the act of adultery and in the process infuriated and humbled the religious elite. Another time, he revealed his nature as God incarnate to a woman trading sex for rent and a whole town believed in Him.
While there are ways in which the Lord used my childhood church in my life for good, it took leaving it to see the place of grace in Christianity. And this grace opened my eyes to the beauty of forgiveness. Being around people who truly believed in the forgiveness of God through Jesus Christ taught me that I could live in that forgiveness as well. I could be free from trying to hide my failures. It also meant that I was free to forgive others and not attempt to hold the world up to my standards. There was grace. And with grace, I could breathe. And for the first time, I could begin to learn to love others.
It is so tempting to tidy up our communities. To retreat from the sinful world and make sure our church is a nice place to be. But, oh how high the cost! The nice veneer covers the withered soul of a community more concerned with maintaining appearances than with following Jesus into the needy crowd.
If we make following the rules an official or unofficial prerequisite for membership in our faith communities, then we never get to see the transformative power of grace. If the prostitute isn’t welcomed to our pews and homes when she dresses like a prostitute, then how can we communicate the love of Christ to her where she is at? What hope do we have of inviting her into the freedom and joy of following Christ when we do not live in that freedom and joy ourselves? Moreover, if we need to put on a happy face when we’re with our church family, what hope do we have of Christ healing the brokenness in us?
So let’s rock the boat. Let’s let our mess show. Not for the sake of vulnerability — as if that is an end in itself — but in the hope that being honest about our faults ushers in the grace of Christ and the transformative power of his love. If we are familiar with our own sin and our need for Christ, then we can extend the love of Christ to those around us, both within the Church and to those who have not experienced the Grace of Christ.