This simple truth led to the enormous smile painting my bearded face on my birthday this year. I turned the key on my mailbox, retrieved my letters, and sorted through them during the elevator commute to my home. It was a significant birthday for me, age 32, and there were more birthday cards in my hands than I could recall ever receiving before. Surprisingly, many of them were from my birth mother's sisters. She had 4 sisters, all of whom lived many states away, and 3 of whom I hadn't seen in years. I don't remember ever receiving a birthday card from any of them before. Did they know why 32 was such a difficult birthday for me? Did they remember my dad had died suddenly of a heart attack at age 32, and realized it'd be a difficult age for me to come to grips with? The smile I had as I held the envelopes encapsulated both gratefulness and hope. I was thankful they remembered my birthday and thought of me, and I looked forward to reading their words of love and encouragement - words I so desperately needed to hear. At that point, I couldn't even conceive of what was inside of those envelopes being so devastating, so painful, and so gut-wrenching. Oh, the naivete of that smile!
When I was in college, I took a few courses on early church history. I didn't go to a religious university, so the courses were taught purely from a historical perspective. My first foray into William and Mary's religion department was a class titled "Christian Origins" - all about the beginning of the Christian church in the first century AD. The following year, I enrolled in "Letters of Paul," a deep-dive into the work of the early church's most prolific writer and apostle. Both courses were taught by a young, Indian professor named Nadella. Dr. Nadella was a skinny man who insisted on wearing suit jackets sized 46 Long. His fingers matched the length of his blazers, and my friend Meg and I used to make jokes about how we feared his nails would poke our eyes out when we sat in the front row. He was quite animated during his lectures, long fingers and jacket sleeves flying about the classroom, which helped bring these ancient texts to life.
|The Wren Building, where I took my religion courses in college|
Yet I hardly learned anything in his class. It wasn't that Professor Nadella wasn't a good teacher, but rather that I didn't enroll in his class in order to learn. I signed up merely to reinforce the worldview I was already hellbent on believing. When he said something in a lecture which would support my existing viewpoint, I would dutifully write it down, hoping I could use it as an anecdote during a conversation with other religious people to make me sound smart. However, when he said anything even the slightest bit challenging to the status quo of my faith, I immediately wrote him off as an unorthodox heretic who had been brainwashed by the liberal bastion of academia.
This was the kind of dualistic thinking characteristic of my faith during the college years, and much of my young adult life. For every issue, there was a right stance and a wrong stance, especially when it came to theology. There was no mystery to faith, only certainty, and if I was unsure of something pertaining to God (which was rare), it was only because I lacked sufficient biblical education.
Perhaps the best story to illustrate how this way of looking at faith manifested itself in my relationships is how I treated one of my college friends, Nicole. She had a bubbly personality that was downright infectious, her broad and genuine smile brightening up every room she entered. One of my favorite memories of her was of us being a large conference for the religious organization we were both involved in during college. To pump up the crowd, they blasted the song currently topping the charts (in 2004), Hey Ya! by Outkast. Nicole immediately shot up from her seat and started the most spirited dance I had ever seen. Her energy was so electric, the hundreds of people in the room quickly joined her, and soon the entire crowd was shaking it like a Polaroid picture. Nicole was a beautiful soul, a joy to be around, and I was thankful to be her friend.
One night, Nicole and I were hanging out when the topic of the upcoming 2004 presidential election came up in conversation. She mentioned she planned on voting for the "lesser of 2 evils," which I assumed meant she was going to vote for the same candidate I had chosen to support, albeit begrudgingly. Yet as the discussion continued, it quickly became apparent she meant the OTHER candidate was the lesser of the 2 evils. I was livid. In my black-or-white world with no gray areas, you could not be a Christian and vote for a candidate other than the one I deemed most moral. I quickly convoluted some Bible verses to explain to her how she wasn't only wrong politically, but also Anti-God by voting for her candidate. Even with my Scripture references, my argument didn't convince Nicole. As she refused to switch allegiance to the candidate I deemed as anointed by God, I brought out the big guns. I concluded voting for her candidate was a sin, and as such, I would follow the biblical model for dealing with unrepentant sin within the community of believers. The first step was to confront the sinner directly (which I was doing). Then, if that didn't work, I'd bring another "brother or sister" along with me to confront her again. "What if I still don't agree to vote for him after that?" Nicole responded with an eye-roll. "As the Bible says, if you still don't repent at that point, we will have to remove you from the community."
It never got that point because Nicole left on her own. Who could blame her. What I did wasn't just bad theology, it wasn't merely wrong-headed or stupid, it was abuse. I can only imagine how traumatic my spiritual abuse must have been for Nicole. I had no authority to speak for God, or even the local Christian community. The thought that I could have some omniscient view of how God would've voted in the 2004 US presidential election, and that any other vote was a sin for which a person should be condemned, is preposterous, dangerous, and harmful to both the well-being of others and myself. Yet there I sat on my high horse. The more I judged others, the less I opened myself up to judgement. The more conviction I used in my tone, the more I could suppress the nagging feeling I might be wrong. The more I suppressed the notion I could be wrong, the better I was able to deny my own brokenness.
Around the same time, Professor Nadella shared an anecdote in class which caused me to roll my eyes at the time, but has since given me reason to pause. He compared Jesus to Ralph Nader. The analogy came up as we were reviewing the different sects of Judaism during the time of Jesus. One of my classmates astutely pointed out how Jesus appeared to be most aligned with the Pharisees theologically, yet still spent the majority of His time criticizing the Pharisees. Professor Nadella responded by asking the class with which political party Ralph Nader's beliefs were more aligned, the Republicans or the Democrats, and the class unanimously responded "the Democrats." Then he asked which party Ralph Nader spent most of his time criticizing, and the answer was the same: "the Democrats." Professor Nadella went on to explain how Nader doesn't spend much time criticizing the GOP because they never claimed to be pro-environment. The Democrats, however, proclaimed to be "green," yet didn't actually enact policies that were helpful to the environment (in Nader's view). This hypocrisy drove him to fight against the Democrats, even though they were the major party with which he had the most agreement. Jesus acted in a similar manner. The Pharisees claimed to be the religious leaders most in-tune with the people, yet they treated the poor horribly. They claimed their theology was the most right in the eyes of God, so much so they would avoid "heretics" such as the Samaritans at all costs, yet Jesus seemed to think Samaritans would do a better job taking care of the marginalized and the abused. Jesus didn't spend time criticizing political leaders he disagreed with, and he didn't even chastise people whose beliefs about God varied greatly from his Jewish religion. Instead, He sharply criticized those who claimed to love God, then treated people like crap.
It's been 13 years since Professor Nadella's class, the 2004 election cycle, and the end of Nicole's friendship, yet that lesson about Jesus still haunts me. The more I learn about Jesus, the more I'm certain He'd have much more critical words for me than he would for Nicole. Even in the event I was "right" about the 2004 election, and Jesus would've voted for the same candidate I chose to support, Jesus's track record makes me believe he would care way less about that, and way more about how much I had hurt someone I called a friend. I firmly believe Jesus would've cared more for Nicole's heart than her ballot, and shame on me for having my priorities out of whack.
|Me in college|
The lesson again reared its head as I opened my stack of birthday cards on my 32nd birthday. One was from an aunt who lived in Kansas, who I had neither seen nor spoke to in over a decade. It was a beautiful card, and it was filled with confetti, leaving a pile of metallic balloons on the floor as I opened it. There was even a photo inside, of me and my cousins when we were kids. I smiled widely, showed the photo to my wife, and felt the sensation of my heart getting warm. Yet as I went to put the card back in its envelope, I saw the back of it had more writing on it. There, my aunt told me I was a horrible person from whom no good could come, and she listed Bible verses which proved I was going to Hell for my sin. Even though I hadn't talked to her in years, I suppose she had heard about my sin through family gossip, and had all the evidence she needed to be judge, jury, and executioner. Those words were the real reason for the card, and they were excruciatingly painful. They likely wouldn't have hurt so much if she had just said them outright, but the card was a trojan horse. It's as if she had wanted to open my heart up first, making sure it was in its most tender state, with the nostalgic photo and whimsical confetti, before dealing her devastating blow. Her strategy was wildly successful, and I wept uncontrollably.
While my attempts to cover my brokenness with religious certainty lasted long after college, the system eventually imploded. I was forced to confront my brokenness. In grappling with my shame, I saw how much harm I had done, and had to take responsibility for that harm. Yet I also had to look at the abuse (spiritual and otherwise) I had endured throughout my upbringing, and acknowledge how it affected my view of God. This led to a complete deconstruction of my faith, and instead of relying on the information I was force-fed, I looked to meet Jesus for myself. What I found was a Christ who was quick to love and comfort the marginalized, while slow to let the pious off the hook. I found a God who cared much less about your stance on hot-button issues, and more about how your beliefs manifested themselves in your actions.
I threw away the other cards from my birth mother's sisters, except for one. While I figured most of the cards would have the same accusatory, condemning contents as the first one, I knew the one I saved wouldn't. It was from the one person in my entire biological mother's family who had actually spoken to me in the past 2 years. The one family member who had actually taken the time to come visit me, the only one willing to share a meal with me in my home, the only one to meet my wife and welcome her to the family. In contrast to the other card, hers was filled with kind words and she also shared some updates of what was going on in her life. I looked at the back of the card, and there wasn't anything there. No secret agenda, just love. She is the only aunt I have who hasn't treated me like a leper, and she's also the only aunt who doesn't profess to be a Christian. Yet she is also the aunt who is most like Jesus.
|Watching the Winnipeg Jets in 2013!|
Did my apology ever make it to her? If her cousin did indeed remember to tell her how sorry I felt, did it even provide Nicole any comfort? I don't know, but I hope she forgives me. I'm still trying to forgive myself for the spiritual abuse I inflicted, but I'm learning to. As I'm learning, I find myself admitting I'm wrong much more often. It's ironic how my faith in Jesus used to make me feel like I had some sort of moral authority over others, whereas now it's constantly making me question my own motives, acknowledge my own flaws and misdeeds, and say very little about the behavior of others.
I'm also trying to forgive my aunt for her hurtful card. Part of seeing my brokenness is understanding others are broken, too, and I want to give her the same grace I know I need. I don't know what her motives were for sending the card, but it's possible her judgement was stemming from her own pain. If that's the case, I know how she feels. I want to extend her the same forgiveness I hope Nicole gives me.