The past three months have been… unexpected. And I guess that’s the reason I’m dusting off the laptop again. Not so much because I think anyone actually cares about my opinions enough to read this blog, let alone follow it. I just want a central place to document the journey and, most likely, dissect it in the months and years to come.
At the risk of beating a dead horse, I won’t rehash past trauma when it comes to the Church. Chances are, if you’re reading this you either A) know our story, B) have experienced your own Church trauma, or C) the title of this blog has piqued your attention enough to land you on this particular entry. Either way, the story’s the same: As frustrated as our family is with the Americanized version of pseudo-Christianity, we still hold on to the teachings of Jesus and believe the Lord is still very much at work.
He just might not be using the Church as His primary vessel for that work.
But, right now, the big thing we’re wrestling through are the WAYS OF MAN…. and how the Church REALLY likes to use (hijack, exploit, profit from) them for their own benefit. (And PLEASE note that I said “for their own benefit” and not for the benefit of the Kingdom, or for the Lord.)
And at the risk of falling into the trap of sounding bitter, or resentful, like so many others… I want to push back against ALL systems, not just the ones being utilized by the Church. We live in a culture that primarily caters to affluence, thrives on nepotism, exploits the oppressed… all for the “benefit of the kingdom” or the bottom line. We see it ALL THE TIME.
Sydney and I can only laugh at this point.
As an example, we stopped counting how many times people have told us that our lives would be so much easier if we just focused on one thing when it comes to the non-profit. It would be easier to raise money, get more people involved, and promote our work. And if we were in the business of selling something, that would be great.
But we’re not.
A couple of years ago someone told us the best thing we could do was create a separation between who we are as people and what we’re building as an organization because we should want the non-proft to exist outside of us. It seemed like great advice at the time. But, it really wasn’t. If we’re REALLY honest. we don’t want the non-profit to exist after us.
We don’t want the non-proft to exist at all.
What we really want is for our communities to become so healthy that the non-profit has no need to exist. If we’re working from a mindset that our organization will be around in 20 years then we’re missing the point.
And there’s a parallel here for the Church.
Sometimes I think we’re SO FAR REMOVED from the tenants of the Christian faith that we’ve forgotten WHAT is being built and WHY it’s built. But, more importantly, we’ve forgotten that we’re NOT actually the ones building it.
So, in the spirit of fairness and self-reflection, I thought it would be “great” to shine a spotlight on us and where we’ve been wrestling through these “discrepancies” in our own lives. Over the next few weeks (maybe months because there’s a lot) I’m going to address some things personally and professionally.
News Flash: There’s work to do. And we’re not interested in keeping up appearances or playing games when there’s so much at stake and so much work to do. Recently someone in our community accused me of being unprofessional and while there’s a lot I could say about this, here’s the most important: Under the paradigm from which she operates, I probably am.
But I don’t operate under that paradigm and I never will. And, truth be told, her remarks were more about who I am as a person. I am who I am… as a mom, a wife, a non-profit leader. I don’t take hats on and off. (Full disclosure, I offered a sincere apology. It was never my intention to offend her. There’s a REAL tension between not being responsible for how people receive things they don’t like and extending grace and compassion when the offense occurs.) But not living up to someone else’s expectations doesn’t make me unprofessional.
I honestly hold all of that in tension because if I had a dollar for every time someone called me unprofessional, problematic, subversive, non-conforming, unrelenting… or my personal favorite from the male dominated authoritarian (and spiritually abusive) church leadership circles… unwilling to submit… I would be rich. (My husband is quick to point out that being rich will never be our reality because I will just give the money away anyway.)
I’ve been wrestling through this question a lot lately. I know the “right” answer. Something along the lines of “It’s not a building, but a group of people who follow Jesus.” But, that answer is lacking in specificity, at best, mainly because it leaves you questioning what it means to follow Jesus… an answer I thought was obvious until a few years ago.
Definitely not the case.
Yet, even in dissecting the meaning of discipleship and everything that comes with a true belief in Jesus, one that moves past intellect and leads us to a transformed life, we’re left with a mixed bag of opinions, theologies, dogmas, and a whole lot of questions.
After spending almost a year on the road, visiting a new church every Sunday, our family has experienced many expressions of community. And I’ll confess that I was more than a little annoyed when Covid stranded us in Chattanooga, historically the “Most Churched City” in the country (per capita). For someone with a heart for church planting, this was frustrating to say the least.
But that frustration has led to some serious soul searching over the past few years.
Because not only is Chattanooga an epicenter for churches, it’s also a leader in the non-profit sector. (Yet another reason why I believe the Lord has a sense of humor: The LAST place church planting New Englanders who run a non-profit would plan to put down roots would be in a community like Chattanooga. This city has enough churches and non-profits already, not to mention the important fact that Chattanooga is a place where EVERYTHING is about who you know… and we knew absolutely no one.)
Yet, here’s the paradox: How is it possible to have a church on almost every corner, but have an exploding rate of homelessness? A high violent crime rate? A foster care system in desperate need of foster parents?
Over the past couple of months I’ve had two conversations that have made me want to take up this blog again. The first one happened back in the fall when a local church asked if they could help us with a volunteer project we were organizing. They wanted their congregants to wear shirts representing their church. Our response was simple: We NEVER wear our shirts at volunteer events. Mostly because we don’t want to bring attention to ourselves. And, at the risk of stepping on the soap box, I honestly don’t understand the mentality, outside of being a safety precaution… but even then, you can wear neon green shirts that don’t act as a billboard for your church. Publicizing a church at a volunteer event seems to fly in the face of Matthew 6:3. (Granted, we’re not necessarily doing things in secret, but, at the very least, let’s be discreet.)
The second conversation revolved around a WHAT a specific church was going to be known for in their community. Specifically, what types of services to the community did they want to be known for. And this is when the light bulb went off. I started going back through conversations I’ve had over the past 20 years and there is MOST DEFINITELY a common thread when it comes to programming and ministries. Every church we’ve ever been a part of seems, at least in part, to be motivated by a desire to be known for something they do, or some service they provide.
And maybe this is part of the problem.
Maybe instead of focusing time and energy on what the local institution (a local church) would be known for, we could focus on equipping and empowering congregants to step into those spaces in their communities … on their own. Or, better yet, ask other congregants to join them.
But, without the shirts.
The truth is simple. Most communities don’t need another community kitchen or food pantry. They need volunteers to show up with no other agenda but to love people. To see them and to serve them. Without promoting themselves, or the place they gather on Sunday morning.
I always go back to a conversation I had with an elder at a church in Portland and how the leadership intentionally decided to give tens of thousands of dollars to our local children’s hospital in hopes that some of the wealthy doctors would start coming (AND TITHING) to our church… instead of giving it to a local ministry that was actively serving the refugee community and having a difficult time making payroll.
Seriously. I can’t make this up.
When we’re motivated… even in part… to make decisions based on how they elevate OUR names, or line our pockets, we’ve already missed the point.
BUT… here’s the REAL reason I want to write again:
The work we’re going in our community, partnered with other organizations, non-profits, and businesses is the closest things I’ve ever experienced to the community I hear churches talk about. And, yes, some of them are followers of Jesus. But, some of them aren’t. Some of them also left the church a long time ago. And, of those individuals who have left, I can’t tell you how many of them have referenced the work we’re doing, asking if we’re “faith-based.”
But as a family we’re living out our faith with no agenda but to simply help others.
For the past two months, I’ve been pushing into the tension I’m feeling with church, trying to find the words to articulate what seems off… whether that’s with me, or with the collective church (most likely both). And yesterday, as I sat in the laundromat with my husband, thanks to a broken washer, it hit me like a freight train. Truth be told, it’s been sitting right in front of me for years, decades really. But, it required me to string together a reoccurring theme, or maybe it’s more of an ever-present variable, which IRONICALLY wasn’t me.
Let me explain.
If you’ve read anything about our journey, you know our family has wrestled with the contemporary, westernized version of church for over a decade. It’s always seemed weirdly “non-biblical” to me and whenever I would ask questions about it to leadership, at best I’d be dismissed. When I persisted in my questioning, I became labeled “problematic”, or my personal favorite: Radical. But, as I sat in the laundromat yesterday, looking back at the common variables in all of those church experiences, it was really hard to NOT see myself as the one thing that remained constant. However, after spending a year on the road talking to other people, hearing their similar experiences, I also knew I wasn’t alone. The things we saw and experienced weren’t isolated events; they were systemic problems within an institution so far removed from some tenets of true Christian faith that it became hard to tell if, collectively, we had become a church committed to the work of Jesus, or a business looking to elevate ourselves… in the name of Jesus.
And then it hit me: THAT was the common variable.
And this is where it get’s nuanced, complicated, nit-picky… the adjective we choose might shine a light on any pre-conceived ideas or judgments we’re clinging to. In some (most) of our pervious church experiences, this elevation of self was obviously self-serving. Whether it was the church that intentionally decided to NOT give away its Christmas tithe to the Christian youth center struggling to make its monthly payroll, instead opting for the well funded children’s hospital in town because they though catching a few doctors in their proverbial net would be advantageous for the bottom line, or the multi-million dollar capital campaigns to construct some of the biggest buildings in our local towns, that ironically would be empty most days of the week, all while homeless shelters continue to bust at the seems and tent villages start populating urban areas.
In both cases, rationalization ran deep. I mean, you can make almost anything look good, and, I dare say, sound biblical. But, are we in the business, pun intended, of doing good… when it could mean forsaking what is better, or best? What is gospel-centered, Holy Spirit inspired and fully-immersed in the love of Jesus. And this is why that light-bulb moment sitting in the laundromat yesterday was so important. These examples are so obviously off the mark that they make other EQUALLY off-centered ideas seem good, I dare-say biblical… when they might not be.
I had a professor in seminary who used a great visual representation to explain the pit-falls of settling for the good option and forsaking the best. He asked us to imagine a straight line from Point A to Point B. This represents a life in complete obedience to our faith in Jesus. (At this point, you might be remembering all the memes of zig-zagged lines that more accurately illustrate our lives of disobedience through the years!) While perfection, this side of eternity, isn’t attainable, the sentiment behind the analogy is important: Any deviation off that line, no matter how acute, over time, will lead you far away from the final destination. (Jump to ALL those sermons talking about how it’s never too late to course correct! This is true. BUT, what we’re talking about here is more than an individual making a mistake, or falling into sin. We’re talking about collectively moving in a direction that elevates man, more importantly our individual agendas as a small body of believers, over the kingdom agenda of elevating Christ by collectively, in unity, working together to be His hands and feet to the most marginalized in our communities.
What if our mindset has been wrong this whole time?
It didn’t hit me until recently when I heard a pastor say, “At the end of the day, if we no longer exist as a church body (understand this to mean: as a registered tax-exempt organization… a specific local church body that differentiates itself from another local body thanks to branding), our loss should be felt in the community.” At the time, I 100% agreed with the sentiment… and, in a way, I still do. But, there’s something deeper here we NEED to dig into because, at the end of the day, the ideology is no different than the examples given above if what we want them to miss is our “small banner” church and not the BIG C church… if it’s not Jesus.
Over the years, our frustration with the institution of church has been its insular practices and programming. There’s a temptation to adopt an “us vs them” mentality as we focus more on bringing people INTO our buildings and not going OUT into the world, if you will. And, just to be clear, I don’t think most of that is ill-intended. On the contrary. But, I also don’t think it’s what Jesus intended the Church to be. When I read the gospels and the Book of Acts, I see a desire to grow so fast and furious that no building COULD contain it, so why bother trying. But, there’s also a second part to this.
While I know there are exceptions to every rule and generalizations are neither fair, nor totally accurate, there are some common characteristics, or themes, we’ve seen far too often that also need to be addressed because together they paint a more accurate picture of our predicament. Generally speaking, we have become a Church that is known more for what its against than what its for. We’ve become more outspoken about our pseudo-political inclinations than our Holy Spirit, Jesus-centered proclamations. We’ve confused sacrificial living with comfortable (and convenient) giving. We’ve raised the banners of small c churches looking to make their mark in society, while trampling the banner of Jesus… that really isn’t a banner at all because humility doesn’t subscribe to recognition.
So, this is where we land. Looking at the landscape. Starting with this foundation.
Confession: I love the Church, but I’m not always a fan of how Christians walk it out. (And, I include myself in that assessment.) The other night, I told my family that I’m taking a break from Sunday morning gatherings for a while and it took them some time to find their words. For the record, I actually LOVE our community of people. This is the most content I’ve felt among a body of believers in a really long time, if ever. We meet at a concert venue/bar and worship is stripped down. We don’t have programs, or classes, and the only regularly scheduled activity is a weekly morning meet up at a local coffee shop. We’re encouraged to be in our community, which is what our family is all about.
So, what’s the problem? (Problem isn’t the right word choice here, but regardless, it feels like the obvious question that most people would ask.)
In simple terms, something feels off. And, to be fair, I doesn’t have anything to do with our specific church. It’s more about American church culture and what we’ve made our Sunday morning services about. Our family has been around the block a few times, and literally around the country, experiencing worship gatherings across the theological spectrum. From the congregation that practices high orthodoxy and orthopraxy, to the groups that would be annoyed by the perceived arrogance associated with both of those words, the iterations of church gatherings are too many to count, but if we’re honest, I think each member of our family would probably agree that all of them just seemed a little… off.
I will attempt to break down some of the bigger issues. (Entire books have been written about this subject, so my synopsis will be lacking, but it will underscore a few points.) At the end of the day, I feel like there are three, maybe four, basic church operating models. From our experience, most people want to group churches into two categories: Mega-church and non-mega (small) church. This is understandable, but I also think it’s too simplistic. More importantly, understanding some of the nuances of these two groups helps paint a better picture of some of the problems.
#1: Mega-churches – Upfront, I’m not here to bash mega-churches. (It’s true… I don’t understand them, but I know a whole lot of followers of Jesus who serve and lead these churches. Remember, this is about putting my finger on what I perceive to be “off”.) Mega-churches can also be broken into sub-groups, like one site and multi-sight. Some of the “red flags” can be seen in both of these examples. Many of these churches are insular, meaning YOU come to THEM. They have programs and classes for everything under the sun. Honestly, there’s no need to be in the community, because they have created their OWN community. (I could write a whole post just on this one topic!) There are multiple services a day and sometimes on multiple days. Everything is well rehearsed and well oiled, to the point that every service is exactly the same. (And some would argue, to the exclusion of the Holy Spirit.)The multi-site is actually more confounding to me. It’s like church planting in a way, branching out into other neighborhoods and communities, but refusing to allow autonomy. Additionally, there’s also something disconcerting to me with the multi-site models where the lead pastor will entrust a campus pastor to shepherd a flock, but not to give the sermon.
#2: Small church – This is my preference, but it’s not without it’s own set of blindspots. I can’t tell you how many times we’ve met church leaders who put more of an emphasis on NOT being a mega-church than on WHY small church is important to them. Being the antithesis of a mega church doesn’t make you better. Whether you are a small church that meets in a building, or a home church, your size and location don’t legitimize you in the eyes of the Lord. In our experience, home churches can be just as insular, or more so, than mega churches. And arrogant. We’ve also been a part of small churches that essentially utilize all the programing of a mega-church, but on a smaller scale. They offer the same classes and programs, just with smaller attendance. They spend most of their money on buildings and salaries, just smaller amounts.
So, what’s the answer?
I have no idea, but I have a few guesses. One of the similarities we’ve seen in both the mega church and small church models include the emphasis on “bringing” people to church. And I think this is part of the problem… thanks, in part, to the Seeker Church movement. In my opinion, the church gathering is for believers… not to the exclusion of “seekers” but, not catered to them. I believe it’s a time for fellow Christians to come together, worshiping the Lord, celebrating the work He is doing IN us and THROUGH us. But, aside from the worship services that resemble rock concerts (which leaves many questioning WHAT you’re worshiping), a lot of the churches we’ve visited looked more like college lecture rooms with students daydreaming, doodling, or fighting the urge to fall asleep.
There’s a weird disconnect.
So, for the next three months, I’ve decided to do something a little out of character for me: Not attend Sunday morning services. I’ve had a few people ask why I think this is necessary and the answer is simple: It isn’t. But, it’s something I keep coming back to. And I think it’s more about what the Lord is doing in me than anything else. Some of us have made Sunday morning into a ritual, or even a mindless routine. For some, an idol. But there’s also something else. I see the Lord mightily at work in the people and places around our town. While our backgrounds are varied, our feelings about the church are oddly similar: We love it, but our city isn’t necessarily impacted by it. Don’t get me wrong, there’s a lot going on. Incredibly wonderful things. A lot of the people we work with are regular congregants at other local churches and some aren’t, but they all say the same thing: The Lord is doing something, inexplicably connecting us. And I want to press into that.
I need to press into that.
I’m not sure I have all the words to correctly articulate my thought process here. But, maybe my hypothesis would be something like this: If you invest in the lives of the people around you… the Church will organically form. My hope, after the three months, and maybe beyond, is to be connected to a community of believers that are living FOR Jesus. Where their Christianity isn’t cultural… it’s consuming. Where our community is better because we are a part of it. And where we don’t view our Sunday morning sermons as weekly pep talks to get us through the next six days, but that our time together is a true celebration of everything the Lord has done in and through us during the week. It feels a little lofty and optimistic…
… but it also feels like Jesus.
So, I’m taking a few months to turn over the soil in my own heart and, in the meantime, I’ll be here, every week, to share more about what’s going on in our community and wrestle out all my thoughts.
Over the past few years, we’ve been asked hundreds of questions about our family. Do we REALLY like each others as much as it seems? (The answer is generally YES, but not always… especially if you’re asking before my morning coffee and/or when it’s past my bedtime and the kids are still practicing music.) Do we ever argue? (Um… YES, frequently. But, we can usually work through our differences and, while incredibly imperfect, we’re stronger for it.)
However, this is the question we’re asked the most: Have you ever thought about writing a book? (At this point, we all laugh whenever anyone asks. We know our story is filled with serendipitous stories. Honestly, too many to believe… if we didn’t actually experience them for ourselves.)
But this probably won’t be the book everyone expects. The words of these pages will, undoubtedly, share our family’s story: starting Be The Change Youth Initiative, traveling the US in a RV, landing in a city and creating a new life from scratch… in the middle of a world-wide pandemic, and, of course, our story of church hurt and our journey with mental health. But, how I’m choosing to tell our story, woven into the fabric of our growing community, reflected in the lives of the strangers we’ve met, who have become like family, closer in many ways than our extended, biological family.
Our story is FAR from over. Our life is still inexplicably unpredictable and chaotic at times, so content is never in short supply. But, after spending almost three years of our lives immersed in the conversations of mental health, church hurt, and the search for genuine community, our family has found itself in the most intriguing of situations: Creating community, outside the institutional church, through simple acts of using our gifts and talents to create positive change in our neighborhoods.
From the outside looking in, our life seems complicated, over-whelming, and inimitable. (And, let me just say, on most days, this is accurate. Our life is all of those things.) But, there is beauty in the mess. And grace. And, from those things, something beautiful in emerging:
When I first started documenting our journey, I called the blog Searching for Jesus in America. For obvious reasons, an appropriate title for chronicling our travels around the country. But, after Covid-19 grounded us in Chattanooga, which, ironically, is the the most “churched” city (per capita) in the country, the name began taking on a new meaning. In so many ways, we’re in the epicenter of what some people refer to as American-ized Christianity. The term means different things to different people, subjectively shaped from bad experiences, but also from an apparent adoption of cultural mores, categorically in opposition to the gospel.
The temptation would be to simply change the name of this space to Searching of Jesus in Chattanooga. But the truth is… I’m not really searching for Jesus. We never were. We WERE searching for where the Lord was at work. We were searching for people who were so busy being the hands and feet of Jesus they didn’t have time to post about it, or profit from it. (Honestly, this is why you see HUGE gaps of time in this blog.)
But, at the same time, to NOT chronicle what we’re witnessing in this crazy experiment of life outside the confines of ecclesiology, would be a dereliction of our responsibilities to speak out against the institutions of man as we continue to be the hands and feet of Jesus Christ. And, please don’t miss what I’m saying here: We have created institutions (churches) that neither reflect the heart, nor the mission, of Jesus. The bride of Christ, is the church… as a people… committed to living in community, abounding in grace, committed to caring for people. Period.
When Democratic Presidential nominee Joe Biden announced Senator Kamala Harris as his running mate, Sydney, my eldest, shared her excitement on an Instagram story. As a young woman of faith, having already experienced the suffocating grip of misogyny within numerous circles of male-dominate leadership in the American Church, the idea of a woman of color having a seat at the MOST important table in our country needed to be applauded. And that was all it took for the DMs to start coming in; people wanted to “educate” her on how someone who is pro-child and pro-women could NEVER vote for a Democrat. I mean, it’s understandable, right? We’re Christians and Harris is pro-choice, so it’s unfathomable that Sydney would even consider applauding a candidate with a (D) by their name.
But, before you assume anything, especially without any awareness of our story, you should know that Sydney is extremely educated and taking a stand on “pro-life” issues. She’s been in pregnancy crisis centers across the country, hearing stories and spreading the message of love and hope. She understands the importance of life and is a FIERCE advocate.
Just so we’re clear, let me say this: If you disagree with me… that totally okay. Your convictions are yours and I’m not trying to change your mind. I’m just offering a different perspective. One from a woman who has #1) had an abortion (you can read more about my story HERE) and #2) spent the last few years advocating for those facing an unplanned pregnancy to choose life.
I believe “pro-life” is an all-or-nothing stance and, unfortunately, we don’t have to look far within the confines of our government to see the hypocrisy and hierarchy of the “pro-life” movement. After the past 18 months, I’ve seen this conversation walked out a few different ways. And, listen, I’m more than happy to talk about ALL the elements of a genuine “pro-life” position: from conception to death (by natural causes). We can talk about how a TRUE “pro-life” candidate would never advocate for war, always send assistance to countries suffering from famine, and NEVER support the implementation of the death penalty. But, I want to specifically focus of the issue of abortion.
If you’ve read any of my previous posts, you know I believe the best way to decrease the number of abortions in our country is to create a culture where women and men want to continue on with their pregnancies. I also believe the best way to achieve this is to make health care and child care readily available, support public policies created to alleviate poverty and advocate for a living wage. Because when we work towards the creation of a society where the choice becomes easier to make… well, the choice ACTUALLY does become easier to make.
For far too long, the American Church has focused its collective time and money on the legal components of abortion, ignoring, and sometimes actively opposing, the social policies supporting families. Constantly offering the never-delivered promise of making abortion illegal, the Republican Party, with the help of their friends in the “moral majority,” has tirelessly worked against efforts to create policies that could significantly reduce the number of unwanted pregnancies. Simultaneously, they have also manipulated voters into believing their crusade to end abortion, through the punishment of those women looking to terminate their pregnancies, is the only way.
But, it isn’t. (And for the record, nowhere in scripture do you EVER see Jesus advocating for submission through punishment.)
Last night, a friend shared with me an article written by Rachel Held Evans. She wasn’t someone I followed and our theology might not align on a lot of points, but it doesn’t matter. Just in case you missed that, let me say it again: IT DOESN’T MATTER. Her words on the issue could be mine… and, before you get your underwear all wadded up, it’s not because I’m throwing out my theology to grasp onto something comfortable and easy to digest. (I know how you “evangelicals” think… it’s one of the benefits of being one of you for so long.) It’s because there’s a tension here that NEEDS to be pressed into; it needs to be filtered through the gospel.
…I think abortion is morally wrong in most cases, and support more legal restrictions around it, I often vote for pro-choice candidates when I think their policies will do the most to address the health and economic concerns that drive women to get abortions in the first place.
For me, it’s not just about being pro-birth; it’s about being pro-life. All children deserve to live in a home and in a culture that welcomes them and can meet their basic needs. Every mother deserves the chance to thrive. Forcing millions of women to have children they can’t support, or driving them to Gosnell-style black market clinics, will not do.
I believe we have to work together — pro-life and pro-choice, Democrat and Republican, conservative Christian and progressive Christian — to create a culture of life that celebrates families and makes it easier to have and raise kids. This is the only way to make our efforts to rarify abortion truly sustainable.
Rachel Held Evans
The question becomes simple: How do we do this? Well, if you know me, you know my answer: First, we stop spending RIDICULOUS amounts of money on ourselves… our mega-church buildings and laser light worship shows. (But, this isn’t limited to how we spend our money as a collective church body.) Second, we, as individuals, need to take a long, hard look at how we spend OUR money… and I’m not just talking about our 10% to the church (which is really only 2% nationally… but that’s a WHOLE other conversation!).
When our day comes, I truly believe we’ll be held accountable for how we stewarded the other 90% of our money. Did we follow the prescript of the Acts Church, taking only what we need and giving the rest to our brothers and sisters in need? Or did we spend it on ourselves? The same can be said about our time. Are we willing to care for the women who choose to continue on in their pregnancies? Will we come alongside them and provide the services they need… child care, health care, rent and tuition assistance… to help position them for success? This is where the church is needed. This is where the church can have the greatest impact.
THIS is what the church should be known for… NOT shaming women and condemning them to hell. And, honestly, we’ve spent way too much money on getting politicians elected, policies passed, and judges appointed. Stop focusing on changing laws and, for the LOVE OF JESUS… start chasing hearts.
So, for all the people who’ve sent our family DMs on the issue: We hear you. We understand your position and you have every right to hold it. For yourself. But, PLEASE listen to what I’m about to say. I WILL be voting for Biden and my salvation is secure. We actually sleep really well at night. And our commitment to showing the love of Jesus to women facing unplanned pregnancies is still intact. You might not like how we’re going to vote, but you don’t have to. My advocacy for the unborn is real and my commitment to the women facing unplanned pregnancies is real… and who I vote for in an election will never change that.
Having traveled across the United States, talking to those who are fierce advocates, both for and against a woman’s right to legally accessing an abortion, we’ve recognized a few areas in the conversation that would benefit from dissection. Not for the purpose of refuting one side over the other, but merely to help us shine a light on how we can effectively communicate our thoughts, even when it comes to the most incendiary topics. In most cases, we’ve found it boils down to three things: 1) talking past one another, specifically having absolutely no interest in listening to what the other person has to say; 2) using and applying a belief system not held by the other party; and/or 3) as a follow up of the second point, applying a doctrinal belief to someone’s life who has absolutely no desire for you to do so.
I want to take each of these points, dissecting them from both sides of the debate, and suggest a way to engage in HEALTHY conversations that will move us towards a Christlike posture reflecting the love of our Savior, and not the hatred and condemnation of the Pharisees.
The first point is actually the easiest to address and it takes us straight to scripture. The world will know we belong to Jesus by the expression of our love for one another. (John 13:34-35) I have raised this point during many of my conversations with those holding an anti-abortion position and, without fail, 100 percent of the time, their response is always the same: I’m loving the baby. And while I appreciate the heart behind this response, there’s a glaring flaw in the rationale: Loving the baby doesn’t preclude us from loving the woman carrying the baby. As Christians, we don’t get to choose who we’re called to love and equally important, the laws of man should never dictate the limits of our love.
To hold a “pro-life” stance means you not only advocate for the life of the unborn, you chase after the heart of the woman carrying the child. You advocate for the life of the prisoner on death row because you believe in the power of redemption, and you never settle for children being detained in cages, separated from their parents… no matter which administration created the laws, implemented the laws or upholds the laws. Because when we label ourselves “pro-life,” we don’t get to pick and choose which lives are worthy of advocacy. As Christians, we hold that God is the judge. (Yet, so often we like to step into those shoes. Some of us walk in them quite frequently… to the point we’ve worn holes into them.)
And PLEASE hear me out. I’m not advocating for those who oppose abortion to stop opposing it. What I’m asking is for you to take a hard look at HOW you’re opposing it. What I’m asking is for ALL of us to look at what a TRUE “pro-life” stance entails. And then filter that through the absolute radical existence of Jesus and the gospel… and his call on our lives to love others. This is an important conversation the church needs to have. Desperately. One of the more interesting points of contention on our trip thus far has been the level of defensiveness (and divisiveness) surrounding this topic… on both sides of the issue. But, if we can get to a place where we’re willing to listen to opposing views, be open to the possibility (*cough, cough* PROBABILITY) that we all have something to learn, and remind ourselves that Jesus calls us to care for EVERY life, no matter the circumstances… if nothing else…. the tone of our conversation will change. As will the witness we are providing to a watching world.
Points two and three go hand in hand… and this has, by far, been the MOST contentious point of discussion across all topics we’ve dissected. From a Christian perspective, the “pro-life” stance is based on the belief of life beginning at conception. As a Christian, I hold this belief. But I also recognize that many people don’t, including many in the church. (Again, check your response to my last sentence.) But, here’s something I find incredibly interesting: None of those people, despite being “pro-choice” believed in elective abortions being performed in the third trimester. And most had a hard time with elective abortions in the second trimester. And, on the flip side, not every anti-abortion proponent referred to abortions as infanticide. (And, as a point of clarification, abortion is not infanticide. While I understand the heart behind this argument, I would contend that using the verbiage is intentionally inflammatory and does very little, if anything, to spur on any helpful dialogue.)
As I close, I want to revisit the first sentence in this post: So how do we end abortions in our country? It wasn’t really a fair question because the truth is simple. We won’t. Even if the Supreme Court reverses Roe V. Wade, and every judge appointed to the bench is a staunch, “pro-life” conservative, abortions will never end. But that doesn’t mean the circumstances surrounding a woman’s (or a couple’s) choice can’t change.
And I believe this is where the Church can have the most profound impact when it comes to drastically reducing the number of abortions taking place here… and around the world. My next post, will be the final one in this series. I will share my own personal views and will propose a solution to help us move in the direction of Christ’s love.
I’ve been sharing my story for years, as the Lord prompts me. Almost always when I hear a woman confess her abortion under a heavy cloak of shame. (And it’s incredibly important to know the difference between guilt and shame.) Almost always, it’s after they hear the story of how Jamie and I chose to keep Sydney. And the words of these women are almost always the same, “Your story has a good ending, but mine doesn’t.”
And this is a problem we have created… in the church.
Whether intentional, or not, we’ve created a culture in some of our churches where the “success” stories within the congregation become idolized. One of my friends calls it “ill-famous.” She refers to it as having an illness, or an exploitive sin, that a church can leverage to their advantage. (And she would know, because her family’s story has been requested for use by her church on multiple occasions… including a building campaign.) Unbelievable as it might sound, it goes something like this: If you’ve been healed from a disease, overcome a significant obstacle, or freed from the grips of horrific sin… your story is a commodity that can be used (exploited) by the church. And, obviously, the repercussions of this can be devastating to the church body, as a whole. As one person on the road described it: If you have reoccurring sin you just can’t seem to conquer, or some “almost-unforgiveable-sin-that-OF-COURSE-Jesus-will-forgive-but-the-church-will-NEVER-forget,” you become a second class citizen of sorts. It’s like Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter. You are forever known by the sin you committed.
When asked why I don’t share my story more, the truth is pretty simple. I’m not interested in dealing with a lot of judgmental Christians with HUGE planks in their eyes… on an issue Jesus had already dealt with. Like the Apostle Paul wrote to the Galatians, I’m free for freedom’s sake. Period. Plus, self-righteousness disguised as holy righteousness isn’t something I have the patience for. (And for the record, neither does Jesus.)
But then I started listening to more women share their stories. And men. Would it surprise you to know that 54% of the women who had abortions in 2014 were identified as Protestant or Catholic? Let that statistic sink in. Over 50% of the women who had abortions in 2014 were professed Christians. Stop right now and take inventory of your thoughts at this exact moment. Are you reflexively questioning the salvation of these women? Were you overcome with anger and judgment because of the decisions they made? Or did your heart grieve for them, NOT from a place of superiority, but from a place of compassion?
When we first got on the road, Sydney and I had the chance to speak with a long time pregnancy care advocate based in Ohio. She had spent an extensive amount of time with young women who chose to terminate their pregnancies. (She also spent time talking to the Church about tangible ways they could help women facing unplanned pregnancies, but I will focus more on that in the next post.) At one point in the conversation, she told us that many of the women looking to terminate their pregnancies were professed Christians; and when asked about their decision to go through with the abortions, almost all of them had the same response:
“Jesus will forgive me, but the Church won’t.”
I STILL remember that moment. Sydney and I were sitting on the sofa in the RV and both of our mouths dropped open at the same time. So many thoughts were going through our minds and we were eager to ask so many follow up questions, but, first, had to recover from our stunned silence. This statement is profound, and in my experience (and the experiences of so many other men and women I have met), painfully accurate. Christ will forgive us for our sins, no matter how heinous they are, and never hold them to our face as a reminder of who we were. The Church, on the other hand, hasn’t had the best track record with extending grace when it comes to having children out of “wedlock” or to those who have had abortions. (See my Scarlet Letter reference above.) Honestly, the choice is rather simple: you can choose to take the pregnancy to full term and deal with all the whispers from within the church, or you can terminate the pregnancy and suffer in silence.
But, either way… you suffer.
When you think of the mission and message of Jesus, this is an incredibly damning indictment against the Church… and should give us great pause. (And this issue isn’t limited to the subject of abortion.) If I’m being honest, I imagine several people read the line “many of the women looking to terminate their pregnancies were professed Christians” and scoffed at the notion of anyone calling themselves a Christian while even CONSIDERING an abortion, let alone HAVING one. And here lies the problem.
Well… one of them anyway.
Years ago, Jamie and I shared our story with a local pastor. I remember the look of confusion that came across his face. He then asked, with genuine sincerity, “But, weren’t you guys Christians?” It was completely unfathomable to him that we would even consider abortion as an option if we professed Jesus as our Savior. (Ironically, he didn’t question our salvation when it came to having sex outside of marriage.) I’ve also had a young man look me in the eye and tell me there’s no such thing as a “pro-choice” Christian. (And before anyone COMPLETELY loses their minds, pro-choice DOES NOT mean pro-abortion. It would be SO MUCH easier to argue a “pro-life” stance if it did. This is something I’ve come to learn on this trip. And something I will talk more about in the next post.) Or that you can’t be a Democrat and a Christian because those two “positions” are diametrically opposed… most likely because of the pro-choice stance that many in the party adhere to. But, would it surprise you to know that 29% of Democrats consider themselves “pro-life”? Or that 21% of Republicans label themselves as “pro-choice”? (Click here for the stats.)
How many of you have an elevated heart rate right now? Creating the bullet points for all your arguments against what I just posted. I assure you… it’s okay. Remember, We’ve been doing this for 10 months and we know all the points and counter points. But, this isn’t about winning an argument. It’s about chasing after hearts. It’s about Jesus. For those who are chomping at the bit to say Jesus was against murder, I would respectfully remind you about his stance on hatred in our hearts being tantamount to murder at our hands. His words. Not mine. AND PLEASE HEAR ME OUT ON THIS: We’re NOT trying to change anyone’s stance on anything. All we’re suggesting is that NO MATTER your political affiliation, or your stance on the issue of abortion, how we communicate the love of Christ to those facing the choice of abortion is the most important thing we will ever do when it comes to the issue.
As Sydney likes to say, “We’re trying to save two lives here, not just one.”
After leaving the Good Friday service, it took about 12 hours for me to accept the Lord’s answer to my fleece. But, there was one glaring problem: If He was calling me to share my story with others, I’d probably need to share it with my husband first.
About 30 years ago, I made a conscious decision to give myself a fresh start in life. A reset, of sorts. And I didn’t meet my husband until almost 10 years AFTER that reset… far removed from the shackles of a past I was determined to leave behind. But, now I sat on my bed trying to figure out how in the world I was going to share this story with my husband. What was I going to say? How would he react? We hardly ever fought. I mean, after 17 years of marriage I can probably count on one hand the times we’ve fought. I didn’t even know how to prepare myself for any type of confrontation.
The only thing I knew to do was pray and then to ask someone else to pray, which is exactly what I did. I called my friend, Anna, confessing my need to tell her something… but, needing to tell my husband first. I asked her to go somewhere alone to pray for me, to pray for my husband. I asked for her to pray until I texted her that my conversation with my husband was over. She told me she would and I knew she’d hold true to her word. Anna, despite not knowing the circumstances, understood both the sincerity and severity of my request.
I remember telling my husband that I needed to talk to him; it was urgent and cleaning would have to wait. I remember telling the kids they could watch a movie and that cleaning would have to wait. I remember the kids being thrilled with the indefinite postponement of chores. I remember feeling like I was going to throw up. I remember crawling into bed and wrapping myself in the blankets. I remember telling my husband the entire story.
I grew up in an abusive home, something my husband knew. My dad was a controlling, sadistic alcoholic who physically beat me and my mom, usually when he was drunk. But sometimes, especially when he was angry, alcohol wasn’t required. In middle school, social services got involved. Briefly. But, also the consummate sweet-talker, my dad convinced the social worker that my cry for help was nothing more than a kid looking to be “spared from the rod.” A funny comment from a man who refused to go to church because he didn’t want to associate with hypocrites. But, the irony was lost on the social worker because she didn’t bother asking if my dad even went to church… or asking for my side of the story, or asking to see the bruises on my body.
One night, while calling home to see if I could stay a little longer at a friend’s house, I could hear things breaking in the background. I could hear my dad in a fit of rage. The last thing I wanted to do was go home, but the last thing I could do was leave my mom there to fend for herself. By the time I got there, the house was destroyed. Picture frames torn from the walls, glass broken everywhere. My dad was still reeling and my mom was still making excuses for him. It was the same song and dance we’d been doing for years. But, I was tired of this dance. I was tired of living in fear. Honestly, I was tired of living. Period.
So, I left.
At seventeen, I left home. For a couple of weeks, there were friends whose parents took me in because they were sympathetic to the situation. But, I never wanted to overstay my welcome. I spent weeks sleeping wherever a bed, or couch, was offered. I stayed in my car. I asked my friends for whatever food they could spare during lunch. If there was enough, I’d save some for dinner. As the weeks turned into months, my friend circle began to change; all my “church” friends stopped talking to me. I started hanging out with an older crowd, which led me down a destructive path.
At the age of 17, I found myself pregnant and homeless. And in a horrific twist of fate, my parents offered me a chance to come home, under the best possible circumstances. My dad was being transferred to an office in Texas for the remainder of the school year. My parents told me I could return home, without having to deal with the presence of my dad…. but, only if I wasn’t pregnant.
Being pregnant wasn’t an option. I mean, what would the people at church think, right? This was a genuine response. (And after hearing the stories of so many others, it’s a common theme from within the church.)
I remember sitting in my car outside of the abortion clinic, watching women walk in. Watching them walk out. Curious if their countenance would change. I noticed a woman sitting in a beach chair outside the clinic, a Cool-Mate cooler to the right of the chair. She was reading a book, but every time a woman passed on the walkway to the clinic, she would look up and say something. Sometimes the interaction was longer than others. Eventually, I got up the nerve to go in. I convinced myself this was a necessary decision for survival. I needed to graduate high school and get out from under the control of my parents. But, I had to pass by this woman and her cooler first.
To this day, I remember so much about my conversation with her. She got up from her chair and said that she had been watching me for as long as I had been watching her. She then asked something I would have NEVER expected.
She asked if she could pray for me.
When I said yes, she grabbed my hands and moved in close. Too close. Her forehead pressed against mine. I braced myself for what was about to come. I was raised in a church where Sunday morning announcements included the phone numbers of elected state and federal officials you needed to call to make sure your voice was heard. I was prepared for the back-handed prayer of condemnation to hell because I was about to commit the unforgivable sin. I was ready.
But, it never came.
Instead, this woman prayed a prayer that would one day save my life. She prayed that I would experience the Father’s love in a real way. No matter what I decided, she wanted me to know that God would love me as much walking out of that clinic as He did when I walked in. No matter what I decided.
That was it. She didn’t try to change my mind. She didn’t throw scriptures at me or call me a murderer. She didn’t show me horrible pictures. She just showed me compassion. She showed me love.
She showed me Jesus.
Years later, I would find myself spiraling down a path of crippling depression, wanting to end my life. (And before anyone starts “explaining” my situation as some form of PTSD. It wasn’t. I spent a lot of time in counseling as a part of my healing process… healing from ALL the trauma of my childhood. Let me save you from your arrogance and/or ignorance. This moment, unfortunately, stemmed from other circumstances far beyond my control and had absolutely nothing to do with this situation.) In my darkest moment, I remembered the woman sitting outside the clinic. I remembered her talking about a God I never knew, despite being raised in the Church. A God that loved you… no matter what. In that moment, I called out to that God. I told Him that if He really existed, I needed Him to take this consuming darkness away. He had to end it, because if He didn’t, I was going to.
And as soon as those words escaped my mouth… it was all gone. The darkness and despair, the depression. All of it. Inexplicably gone.
I wish I could sit here and say that in that moment I dedicated my life to the Lord who saved me from myself. But, truth is… in that moment, I thought about ALL the times I was taught about God’s love for children. I thought about the horrors of my childhood and wondered where God was all those years. Instead of being overwhelmed by His love for me, I became overcome by my anger towards Him.
So… I ran from God. Hard and fast for almost 10 years. Around the world, literally… and then to Maine.
I sat on my bed, finally through the whole story. Tears rolling down my face because I just shared years worth of trauma to a man who never signed up for it. I had no idea how he would take it. My husband is an internal processor, a pretty extensive dialogue takes place in his head before any words cross his lips. I, on the other hand, am an external processor. I need words to be expressed vocally, especially in these situations.
But all I got from him was this quizzical look, as if every word coming from my mouth had been in some indistinguishable language. The expression remained on his face for an uncomfortable amount of time and I used every second of the silence to brace myself for every possible response… except the one he gave me.
“Deirdre, I’ve known… I’ve known for years.”
I’m sorry, WHAT?!?! How in the world could he know? And, more importantly, how was it even possible for me to have absolutely no clue?
My husband then went on to explain how years ago, while packing up for our move, he came across a box filled with letters and pictures. He didn’t recognize the contents and began searching for a clue. From the few things he read, my husband was able to piece together my story. But, instead of bringing the contents of the box to my attention, he quietly placed them back onto the shelf.
Immediately, I placed myself in his shoes. I can, quite confidently, admit that if the roles had been reversed, my actions would not have been the same. NOT. EVEN. CLOSE. I would have brought the whole thing to his immediate attention asking how he could have possibly kept something so monumental from me. I, most likely, would have felt entitled to know every detail and demanded as much. At the end of the day, I would have expected a complete confession and then (possibly) extended grace…. maybe. I wish I could say that my response would have been different, but I know myself pretty well.
Thankfully, that was NOT how my husband responded. And when I asked why he never said anything to me, his answer was simple… but profound.
“That was from atime in your life before you knew me.That’s not who you arenow.”
And, just like that, for the first time in my entire life, I understood how Jesus REALLY sees me. I came to a place of TRULY understanding what he accomplished on the cross.
For years, men in the church… leaders in the church… shamed my husband because of his “lack of leadership” on the home front. They blamed me for not being submissive. They questioned his lack of interest in leadership opportunities at the church, opting instead to watch the babies of the young women I would teach. They never once saw how much of Jesus my husband REALLY was. (Confession: Neither did I… because I believed the lies so many propagated in the Church, whether through their words or actions.) My husband was the first to serve in the most “undesirable” positions. He saw my giftings and did everything possible to make sure I used them for the edification of the body… even if that meant being covered in the spit up of a child that wasn’t ours.
In that moment, through those simple words, my husband showed me an inexplicable love. He showed me the love of Jesus. And in that moment, EVERYTHING changed.
I woke up the following morning determined to make it absolutely impossible for God to speak to me. (I know. Sitting here, at a RV park in San Antonio, I read that sentence in embarrassment.) I’m not sure if it was arrogance or stupidity. Maybe it was just a matter of complete desperation. But, whatever it was, I had a plan in place.
In a pinnacle moment of maturity, I decided to play sick. Yep. I mean, if I don’t get out of bed all day, just pull the covers over my head, and tell everyone to leave me alone… God can’t possibly talk to me, right?
Everything went exactly as planned until around lunch time, when I heard the chime from my phone buried somewhere in the bottom of my purse. I immediately began kicking myself for not silencing my phone. This text, under any other circumstance would have been the answer to prayer. But, in my current situation, it would lead to my undoing. You see, the text was from a young woman who had been living with our family for months After living as a missionary overseas, she needed a place to land, to find her bearings. For months, I had been asking her to go with us to church. For months, she had passed on the invitation. Then, all of a sudden, out of the blue… yeah, okay, God… she sent me a text asking it I would go with her to a Good Friday Service. (Did I mention that it was Easter weekend?)
Here I was, faking illness, eliminating all contact with electronics and people… well, almost all… trying my best to keep any and all communication with God to absolutely zero. And then I get this text asking me to attend a church service with someone who hasn’t wanted to go to church in months. Something I had been praying for, wrestling with God on, for months. And, THIS was the day He decided to answer that prayer.
And that, folks, is how our God works. His timing really is impeccable.
I agreed to going to the Good Friday Service. But I was arriving late, leaving early and sitting on the back pew. Non-negotiable. (I can’t imagine what thoughts were going through this young lady’s head.) But, understand the predicament I found myself in: I was trying to avoid God… and now I was going to church, arguably, the last place you’d want to go.
Yet, there I was.
I remember parts of the service. It was cast as an ecumenical service. Seven different congregations were participating, most from conservative and/or liturgical backgrounds. But there was one that wasn’t… and that pastor decided to hijack the Good Friday script turning it into one of deliverance, prophetic words, and healing. You could almost see the heads explode one by one, starting with the Baptist congregants, shortly followed by the Anglicans.
Under “normal” circumstances, my head would have probably been pounding too. But, I was just counting down the minutes until the last song would be sung… and I would subtly exit my pew and run back to hide under the covers of my bed until the clock struck midnight. But, as the last song began to play, I noticed Katherine, another one of the young ladies from my discipleship group, at the front of the church. It was hard to NOT notice her, because she was waving to get my attention.
For about five seconds, I contemplated ignoring her. But, I knew something was wrong just by looking at her. And, by the end of those five seconds, I had this horrible feeling Katherine was part of God’s plan. It was the same feeling I get when riding a rollercoaster, about to crest the top of the peak… about to drop three stories with lightening speed.
Katherine lived in downtown Portland, right above the Planned Parenthood. On that particular Friday, protesters paraded in front of the building, holding posters not suitable for young eyes, citing scriptures found in the Old Testament… ignoring those in the New… telling those entering the doors of the clinic that they are murderers. And like so many other Fridays, Katherine walked down to the street and engaged in conversations with those firmly gripping their poster boards and their bibles.
One of the many things I love about Katherine is her heart for those who don’t know Jesus. Even in these moments with protestors outside of Planned Parenthood, she wanted the witness of the Church to reflect the love of Christ. Because of this, she tried to engage one of the protesters into a conversation. She questioned why they relied so heavily on the Old Testament, ignoring the words of love from Jesus that permeate the New Testament. But, like so many times before, the conversation went nowhere.
Finally, one of the women talking to Katherine shared her story, which includes multiple abortions. Almost as an acknowledgement of the impasse, the woman told Katherine that she doesn’t expect someone who’s never lived her experience to understand her position. In part, this woman was arguing that she has more insight, and by default, more of a right, to engage in this form of protest that arguably heaps on more condemnation than anything else.
As Katherine continued to tell her story from the previous hour, I began to feel the crest of the roller coaster fast approaching. As she looked at me, somewhat defeated by her interaction with the woman, I knew the Lord was using Katherine to check off all the conditions I gave Him. She finished her story almost with a resigned defeat, as she said her final sentence, “Maybe she’s right, I’ve never been in these women’s shoes. Why should they listen to me?”
And just like that, in the house of the Lord, on Good Friday, the Lord spoke in a way I couldn’t deny. I remember feeling sick, as I grabbed the pew to steady myself. Conversations were going on around me, but I couldn’t hear them. I couldn’t hear anything except the voice in my head, a volley of expletives and questions. Back and forth. Back and forth.
Katherine broke through the verbal tennis match in my head with a request for me to drive her home. And somewhere between the walk back to the car and my key turning the ignition, I became lucid again. I didn’t even make it 100 yards down the road before I pulled off to the side and asked Katherine to take out her calendar. I told her I thought God spoke to me through her and that I needed her to hold me accountable. I asked her to make a reminder on her phone, two weeks from that day, to check in with me. To hold me accountable. I apologized for being vague and explained that I couldn’t tell her anything more, but that I would explain everything in two weeks.
But, it didn’t take two weeks. It didn’t even take two hours. By the time I pulled into my driveway, I knew what the Lord was calling me to do. He was calling me to share my story. But there was one problem. No one knew my story.
So before I could share my story with the world, I’d need to share it with my husband.