Monthly Archives: November 2014
“Enter by the narrow gate. For the gate is wide and the way is easy that leads to destruction, and those who enter by it are many. For the gate is narrow and the way is hard that leads to life, and those who find it are few.” ~ Matthew 7:13-14
This little pair of verses is one of the most commonly quoted among Christians. It is almost a mantra, I have heard it so many times growing up: from the pulpit, from my dad, and perhaps most often, in my own head.
When I was taught this passage growing up, it was almost always about salvation. It split human beings into two groups: the big group of people who take the easy way in life, and the small group whose lives are flipping hard because they are living for Jesus.
As a Christian, I’ve undoubtedly had to consider that I belong to the smaller group. And based on the way I was taught this passage, I’ve always understood it to be based on belief. I choose the hard beliefs; I choose the beliefs that leave people thinking I’m a judgmental asshole sometimes. I choose the beliefs that result in being misunderstood, or naive. Because of course, if this Christian life is easy and without trials and difficulties, and if my beliefs aren’t challenged and opposed by the world around me, I must not be on the narrow path after all, right?
I wish that Jesus had offered more context when he spoke this saying. But there really isn’t any; it comes right in the middle of a bunch of other quick, brief teachings: don’t judge, don’t throw you pearls before swine (a weird passage if I ever heard one!), have confidence that God will give you what you ask for.
In light of that, I don’t think it’s a stretch to say that we can look at these verses with an entirely different lens than the salvation/damnation paradigm. A little while ago, I read Rob Bell’s wonderful little book Love Wins. He has this remarkable way of personalizing Jesus’ teachings in the book while staying faithful to their message. He talked about heaven and hell—i.e., the narrow way and the broad way—not in terms of two places that human beings are divided into based on God’s judgment, but rather states of being that we choose for ourselves in this life—in the here and now.
So if we choose bitterness over a past wrong, we’ve chosen hell. If we choose to go out of our way to show kindness to someone, we’ve chosen heaven.
I think that same idea can be applied to this saying about the narrow way and the broad way. I think it might tie in nicely with all the stuff Paul says (in Romans I think, but probably in other letters too) about the lure of our sinful spirits, and about how difficult it is to choose Jesus. And really, choosing Jesus and choosing life are the same thing at the end of the day, aren’t they?
Anyway, tying back to what I said earlier about choosing the hard beliefs, I think the narrow way, the way that leads to life, isn’t about an exclusive set of beliefs. Or at least it isn’t just about that. I think so much of it has to do with how I view people, how inclusive I am of those around me.
At the end of the day, that is so much harder than having beliefs that “the world” thinks are silly and archaic. I’ve done that my whole life—believe me, I’ve got that down pat, and it doesn’t really faze me anymore (probably because I have come to realize that a lot of my beliefs were silly and archaic!). What is so much harder is breaking down stereotypes, seeing the people around me for the beautiful souls that they are instead of judging them based on the myriad ways of judging that human beings have invented and then passed down to their children.
That is hard. That is a narrow path that few people ever find.
But maybe, at least when looking at it this way, recognizing the path you are on is the first step to retracing your steps and finding your way back to the narrow path that Jesus desires us to take. I don’t think choosing the broad path has to be the final word, for otherwise what is the purpose of grace?
It’s so incredible when you peel back the layers of scripture like this, and unfold the myriad meanings that you can draw even from little sayings like this. That is why I love the Gospels so much; each story, each saying, each teaching can be viewed from a dozen different dimensions, and can result in a dozen different meanings. It’s pretty incredible when you think about it.
So yeah, I think narrow path could represent choosing a set of beliefs that most of the people around you have rejected. It could also represent the kind of radical inclusion that Jesus displayed (a path that I think many Christians today are totally not on!). Or it could be about something else entirely. You could pick your demons, really, based on what you are struggling with or what areas of ignorance or blind spots you currently have in your life. That’s the beauty of stories; there’s more than one way to read them.
Today I read an article linked on Facebook by one my favorite bloggers of all time, Rachel Held Evans. I had so many thoughts running through my head as I read, and I figured there was no better place to get them all down in writing than on my blog (at this point, I really recommend you read the article, as my post won’t make much sense otherwise).
I believe that the message of this article is a game-changer in the Christian treatment of homosexuality. Though I “came out” in support of gay marriage a year and a half ago, I’ve also been consistent in my defense of the beliefs of more conservative Christians who believe homosexuality is sinful. I am always quick to remind more militant LGBTQ allies that your capacity to love others has nothing to do with what you believe, and that we can love across the divide. I think about my parents and many of my friends, who are non-affirming yet also very loving people. I suppose in a way, it is them I am defending.
And yet. I don’t think I can anymore, because I don’t think that doing so is faithful to the Gospel that I believe in.
I found the parallels the article drew between anti-Semitism and homophobia to be incredibly alarming. To stretch the analogy further, if I lived in the time before the Holocaust when anti-Semitism was still so deeply engrained in the Christian religion, and I rejected that hatred for the Jews, how could I not believe that anti-Semitism was a toxic belief? How could I not challenge those who believe Jews are little horned devils responsible for the death of Jesus?
In the same way, I have very slowly come to the understanding that believing homosexuality is sinful is, at its core, toxic. I know the situation is a little different. But I also know that there has been no shortage of hatred for LGBTQ people throughout church history, and I think that this hatred, and the belief that homosexuality is sinful, are intrinsically linked.
This harmful belief marginalizes those who identify as LGBTQ in such incredibly hurtful ways. I understand the belief is born out of a desire to be faithful to scripture, and a desire to see God’s will carried out in the lives of others. But I think that in its underbelly, it is a breeding ground for contempt, as the article I shared explains.
I think about my life growing up, how I was implicitly taught that people who say they are gay are just freaks who are displaying a lust-filled distortion of sexuality. I think about the derision and annoyance I felt in my heart whenever the “gay agenda” was “pushed on me” by television. At the time I didn’t know there was a label for what I felt for the LGBT community, and that this label was homophobia
And now, here I am, staunchly resting on the other side of this debate. When I think about my more recent experiences with both affirming and non-affirming Christians, I have discovered that in almost every situation, I need to defend the humanity of LGBT people to non-affirming Christians in ways I never have to do otherwise.
I remember debating fiercely with a friend when the Phil Robertson debacle happened, and I remember feeling so sad and angry when she very callously told me she thought what Robertson had said was funny, and that gay people just need to grow a thicker skin. This is just one experience of many that perhaps aren’t as extreme as anti-Semitism in Europe was, but are harmful nonetheless. And my own experiences have been very mild indeed, compared to some of the heart-breaking stories I have read in which LGBT people are rejected, bullied, and hated.
My experiences have led me to the understanding that to believe that homosexuality is sinful is to believe that an entire people group’s capacity to fall in love is inherently and uniquely broken and distorted. So it comes as no surprise that the non-affirming view generates such contempt.
I never thought I would come to such a place of earnest conviction about my belief in this because I have always, always been the sort of person who desires reconciliation and mutual understanding more than winning an argument. But there is a time when reconciliation requires taking a step away from the radical inclusion of Jesus, and from the powerful message of love which is in the undercurrent of everything he teaches. And supporting gay marriage fits that message in profound ways, ways that the non-affirming view cannot.
Lately I’ve been writing all kinds of stuff about my new church, Thoburn UMC, because I am so thrilled to have finally found a home there. Tonight in small groups, things were a little bit unconventional because we watched a video on the prophets, so I don’t have much to share about our actual discussion.
Before we hunkered down for the video, though, our group leader and the church’s associate pastor, Pastor Adam, shared an update about the small group that my current group recently split off from. He said that all of them had admitted to never reading scripture cover-to-cover, and how they had all independently made the decision to do so, something they discovered last week at their small group.
And it got me thinking about how much I am growing to treasure this group I have become a part of. See, I also have never read the Bible cover-to-cover, and I had always been ashamed of that. So last year I had committed to doing so, and I got as far as Numbers 16 before I tossed my Bible away in horror and haven’t picked it up since (well, I’ve picked it up of course, but not to read Numbers, that’s for sure!).
But since these people courageously shared that they are in the same boat as me, and will likely have some of the same jarring experiences I did, I have found that I can do this. I can pick up my Bible again and continue what I started last year. And that is a gift that my old church—for all that I appreciate about it—could not give me because I knew I could never just vent my fears to them about what I encounter in scripture without it turning in to a debate.
And that is not all that happened at small groups tonight; I have saved the best for last.
Before the group started, Pastor Adam took me aside and privately asked me a question that left me entirely stunned and at a complete loss for words.
Before I explain what he asked me, let me explain the concept of small groups at Thoburn. Basically, the idea is for the groups to multiply. As a group becomes larger than 12 or so, it is the pastors’ vision that the group would split into two, with two separate leaders. And as those groups become larger, they would also split, and so on. So the groups become more numerous, but remain small and intimate.
So each group needs to have an acting leader, and a potential leader for when the groups split.
Have you guessed what Pastor Adam asked me yet? I’m sure you can, and thus understand why I was so utterly stunned. I’ve only been going to Thoburn for a few months now, and have generally been my normal, quiet, introverted yet rather opinionated self. And yet, he asked me to lead the new group when ours split.
I actually, literally asked him if he was serious, and after small groups when I decided to agree to lead it, I was certain he had asked me as a last resort, because everyone else in the room was married and had a lot of other responsibilities. And yet, he told me I was his first choice, because I seem grounded and steady in my faith, and I demonstrate a desire to grow.
And really…isn’t this what the Church is supposed to be about? Believers edifying one another? Seeing potential in one another that you might not be able to see for yourself? I felt so encouraged after our discussion, and while I am one of the youngest in our group and feel wildly under-qualified for this, I had to ask myself this question. How, after talking about how God uses ordinary people to fulfill his purposes just like he did with the prophets, could I tell my pastor I wasn’t the right person to do this?
So my introverted little self is going to leap outside my comfort zone and do something I am very, very nervous to do: in the future at some point, I will be facilitating a small group at Thoburn.
Cheers to spiritual growth and overcoming your demons of inadequacy!
Okay so this post won’t have much of anything to do with the sorts of themes I usually tackle on the blog. It won’t even have anything to do with Christianity, to be honest. It’s just something I’ve been mulling over in my mind for the last few days.
The other day, I read this post on a blog I follow regularly. The writer, Samantha, discusses a YouTube video that recently went viral in which a woman dressed in a fitted t-shirt and jeans walks around New York City with a very passive face, making it clear to passersby that she is not interested in interaction with others. Throughout the course of her experiment, which lasted several hours, she received catcalls, sexually suggestive comments, and was asked for her number multiple times.
Samantha called this street harassment, and she shared her own experiences going through the same sort of thing throughout her life. They are frightening, unnerving stories, and a part of me was quite resentful of reading them, because as I did I felt paranoia rising up inside me.
I have had quite different life experiences from Samantha and the girl in the video. I grew up in a small town, and street harassment was never something I experienced at all, either in high school or college.
Now, though, I work in Wheeling, WV, a town that isn’t exactly big, but it definitely has a bad reputation in the area for violence, drugs, and crime. And I work second shift, so I walk to my car every night around midnight to go home.
And I’ve been cat-called a couple times, and men have said “heeeeeeey, girl” to me in a suggestive manner, and once a man easily twice my age asked for my phone number.
So I have a little more experience with what Samantha is talking about, and I can sympathize with her for defending the girl in the video. A lot of the YouTube commenters were terribly harsh towards her and accused her of just seeking attention, and blowing the men’s greetings out of porportion. But Samantha calls out the ignorance of these commenters very poignantly:
“They don’t understand. They’re screaming about “how can just saying “hi” be harassment?! Feminists are just so stupid and sensitive,” and I want to scream because most of the street harassment I’ve ever experienced in my entire life starts with “hi”– and it never ends well. You say “hi” back and all of sudden you’ve given them permission to follow you. You flip them off, and they get pissed– really pissed. You ignore them and suddenly it’s all about how ugly you are and how they’d never f*** you anyway.”
As I thought about Samantha’s blog post, and the woman’s video, and my own comparatively harmless experiences, I have come to realize that I can’t be that person. I understand the importance of caution when you are cat-called on the street, because it can easily escalate into something dangerous.
Yet…not to sound narcissistic, but one of the qualities I hold most dear about myself is my tenacious insistence in believing the best about people. Sometimes it borders on naivety, and I am hurt when I realize just how flawed some people around me are. But in general, I don’t want to lose that. So when a man says “hello” to me on the street, I will always smile back and return the greeting, even if it makes me a little uncomfortable. I will always give the people around me the benefit of the doubt until something happens and I can’t reasonably do that.
And I understand that this mindset of mine probably exists because I’ve never been assaulted by a man, never been forced by a man, never experienced any sort of sexual harassment beyond the quite mild situations I described above. Because let’s face it, if the worst I can say about my experiences with strange men in public is that a man twice my age asked for my phone number, I think I’m pretty safe in saying I have room for faith in men that other women might not have.
So, I guess, all that is to say I understand the importance of taking to heart what Samantha has said, and I appreciate the importance of the video’s message. I know that ignoring the reality that street harassment can potentially escalate is a dangerous thing to do. And I know it is important not to downplay these situations, because to do so is to ignore the reality of stories like Samantha’s. I just think it is important to find a balance—a balance between being cautious without being paranoid, wise and yet gracious.
Because here is the truth. I am the kind of person who believes the best about people. And I hope I always will be.