We are being gathered. (Unexpected encouragement amidst the hate mail.)

8 min. to read.

Well, this past week has been a crazy emotional ride! Last week I sent out an email update. As always, the email included a link to my latest blog and podcast. It also started with an open letter to folks who follow my writing online.

I thought I’d get hate mail. (Or, maybe more accurately, Strongly-Worded-Concerned-Brethren mail) I thought it likely this email would result in more unsubscribes than anything I’ve ever published online.

I was right, but I was also unexpectedly encouraged. You might be too.

In that email, I wrote these words: 

“Seeing so many of my extended family of faith vocally dismiss science, ignore the pandemic, fight for their right to gather in public and sing songs while people are dying, support the administration of a man who is a bully, who doesn’t pay his debts, who is profoundly disrespectful in his interactions with women and minorities…feels like a betrayal. It feels like we’ve lost our way. And the consequences to our witness are overwhelming.

I’ve had an increasing number of conversations with folks, both here in Portland, and online, who are ready to toss the church, Christianity, and everything it represents, right out the window…They look at us and cannot see light or hope or love. Because they cannot see those things, they are not in the least interested in our supposed truth.

This experience has been deeply unsettling for me. I remain committed to Jesus and His reconciling work in me, in us, and the world. That means I have to find a way forward. And that’s what I’m going to do.”

As I clicked send, I felt the clenching of my gut that comes when I anticipate conflict or the fallout of someone not being pleased with me; There was also a much deeper sense of settledness. I had written something true and vulnerable. The next morning I saw the responses that had started coming in almost immediately.

What I didn’t expect…

Responses were varied. Some expressed sadness that I had lost my way. Not a small number warned that I was falling prey to the great liberal deception. A couple accused me of being a false teacher intent on dividing the church. One person angrily denounced me for harassing them with my words, declaring I was a part of the persecution of all true Christians. Another asked for a full refund for items they had bought from me since I had betrayed them and lied in the past by claiming to follow Jesus. Many more people just silently unsubscribed.

What I didn’t expect was so many notes of encouragement. For every angry or sad email, there were three offering encouragement. One wrote, “I’m one of those you mentioned about ready to throw Christianity out the window. Hearing you say these things has given me hope.” 

Another said, “You’ve so perfectly expressed the shock and exasperation I’ve felt these past four years. My Christian family has fallen into misinformation, conspiracy theory, and angry nationalism. Worried about what’s next, but glad I’m not alone.”

“I was starting to think I was crazy. I keep reading the gospels and praying, I’m trying to keep my eyes on Jesus, and American Christianity looks so unlike Jesus! Please keep doing what you’re doing. You’re saying what needs to be said.”

Some of the notes were short. Others surprisingly long, sharing stories of loss and grief. Being kicked off the elder board, having to leave the church they’d been a member of for most of their life, betrayal by pastors, exiled by family members.

A theme tied these emails together. It was unexpected, and it so deeply resonated with my own journey. Where we find ourselves right now, out of step with American Christianity, Jesus has led us to this place. These emails came from people who love Jesus, honor scripture, and want to see the church be known for justice, mercy, and humbly following Jesus’ way. That is my heart, too!

We are not alone!

Reading these emails over the week brought to mind Hebrews 12.

“Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight and the sin that clings so closely, and let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus the pioneer and perfecter of our faith, who for the sake of the joy that was set before him endured the cross, disregarding its shame, and has taken his seat at the right hand of the throne of God.”

The faithful followers of Jesus who received these words in the Letter to the Hebrews were under tremendous pressure. They were experiencing hostility, even persecution. The writer of Hebrews reminded them of all the faithful who had gone before. They, too, had experienced great hardship and yet had stayed the course. 

As we follow Jesus, even when the way is hard, we are not alone. We are in the good company of those who have gone before us. We are also in the good company of many others around the world, experiencing the very same things we are experiencing now. We are not the only ones whom the Spirit has led in this way. 

The Spirit of Christ is leading growing numbers of us to understand and apply our faith in new ways, breaking down old walls of separation and exclusion. If this is you, you are not alone.

The Spirit of Christ is leading growing numbers of us to welcome, and even affirm, LGBTQ people into our relationships and faith communities. They are fully human, carrying the Divine Image just like anyone else. They can be Christians. They can be leaders. The rest of us can learn from their experience and their faith. If this is you, you are not alone.

The Spirit of Christ is leading growing numbers of us to see that much of the mythology of America was designed to protect the position and privilege of the wealthy and elite, nearly all of whom were white. We are coming to see that racism is not merely a private, moral failing, but also a systemic injustice still hurting people who carry the Divine Image, even though they are brown or black. We are recognizing this, repenting of our role, and learning how to be part of healing. If this is you, you are not alone.

The Spirit of Christ is leading growing numbers of us to discern that a version of our religion has been turned into a political and economic machine, bent on preserving a certain social hierarchy. We are starting to pull away from those leaders, their organizations, and we are reconsidering where we invest our time and dollars. If this is you, you are not alone.

Growing numbers of faithful Christians are experiencing revelation. The Spirit is removing the scales from our eyes. We are seeing (some of us for the first time) that the Gospel was never about a selfish salvation for me and mine. It was never a fear-motivated insider’s escape from the trials and torture of this world or eternity.

We’re seeing—along with faithful Christians across history—that the Gospel was always Jesus’ invitation to die so that we can live. We’re called out of the waters of Baptism to join Jesus in the margins, to find him in those our culture considers least. In gentle judgment, He helps us pull the log from our own eye instead of judging the speck in others’. He invites us to be open-eyed participants in His work of bringing good news to the poor, liberation to the captives, enlightenment to the blind, and freedom for the oppressed. 

We are learning that this is not meant only for some far-away spiritualized future, but in the messy day-to-day of life here and now. If this is you, you are not alone.

Many of us are reconsidering what faith looks like. We are digging deeper into scripture. We are thinking about our assumptions and the lessons we’ve been taught. We are seeking the Spirit and asking to be led in the way of Jesus.

It can be disorienting to discover that certain core assumptions you’ve accepted for years just aren’t valid. It can be painful to find that your faith community isn’t willing to make space for you on this journey. But as we do this hard and essential work, it is crucial to know this: The Spirit has led us to this place. The Spirit of Christ leads, and where the Spirit leads, Christ gathers his body. We are being gathered.

We are not alone.

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