My mother relayed the memory enough times it became like a radio song. I might not know every word by heart, but place me somewhere in the middle and I could sing you enough to get by.
She recalled her school days, bridging social classes. No single group hoisted her on their shoulders, but she made a friend in every faction that might comprise a version of “The Breakfast Club”; she was acquainted with the athletes, the basket cases, the brains, the criminals, and the princesses.
A younger version of me shrugged out of the conversation. The reflection felt irrelevant at best, like false humility at worst—a portrait of my mother as a sacrificial saint. Now, as I find myself in the uncomfortable position of opening up to all kinds of people, her words acquire depth and breadth.
She laid a vision before us of a label-less life, one in which character overcomes convenient stereotypes. But reading the story from the final page backward, I detect her releasing a burden. Absorbing the hopes and hurts of people forever told they are at odds with one another leaves the spirit more tender, certainly more exhausted.
I overestimated my own understanding—and underestimated the number of lines a person must draw to feel protected and pure.
Today I live in what I call my third wave of theology. During the first, encompassing my youth through my time at a Baptist university, my dogma resembled classic-rock radio. Inoffensive. Built from the same three chords many people used. Good in all kinds of company. Introduced to the systematics of distinct movements, I rejected one principle or another, content to live in the middle of the road.
In my mid-20s, somehow both bored and disgusted with my easygoing evangelicalism, I chased definition. First I deciphered what I was against; later, I committed to the language of assent.
I would trade little from that season of discovery. The verbs seeking and finding want to be wed, and in their union, my imagination grew wider and holier. But a different kind of purity culture creeps around corners freshly painted with the colors of certainty.
Teams revealed themselves and, with them, the pressure to pick sides. They carried distinct customs, played their own fight songs, built separate halls of fame, and engaged in the cheering and booing that accompanies anything turned to sport. While I have always belonged to a quieter class of fan, the kind who stays seated for the wave and leaves umpires alone, the need to be right about God hardened my heart all the same.
The impulse was natural: I wanted to see God in all his splendid detail, and avoid anything which might dull my sense of him. But I overestimated my own understanding—and underestimated the number of lines a person must draw to feel protected and pure.
Thankfully, God—who, as Rich Mullins once articulated, owns the widest mercy—complicated my sense of other people. Insights from once unlikely souls piled up; their snapshot images captured common spiritual landmarks, leaving me with fewer excuses for keeping distance.
I long to be seen as a complex person with an intricate arc; no single term or school of thought to define me, a life marked with subtle detail and shading.
Trying to share a source of revelation, I took needless rhetorical detours. Some strange fear of guilt by association provoked a laundry list of everything a writer or theologian got wrong before mumbling through our reason for unity. All my prefaces left me breathless before the conversation really started. Tired of winding up to the point, I crossed out unnecessary clauses, simply giving credit for truth and beauty where it’s due.
I long to be seen as a complex person with an intricate arc; no single term or school of thought to define me, a life marked with subtle detail and shading. Pursuing theological purity, I denied others what I wanted for myself. I flattened their stories, reduced them to a series of connected dots. For my own comfort’s sake, I refused holy surprises, missing out on what makes saints fascinating and difficult and glorious.
Given all the times I wrote people off, or assigned them to classes of Christians, I know I was wrong about you. Maybe not you by name, but someone you closely resemble. I cannot bear concealing that reality any longer; I will name it and add my apology.
We hold so much potential for teaching each other, for gladdening each other’s hearts—I don’t want to shut myself off to you any longer.
Time runs short, so let me first contend with myself, for my own faith. Once I fix all the theological typos and right my many wrongs, allow me the privilege of removing specks from your eyes. God shows me how my image of him lacks something, how it fades in and out like poor TV reception, without you. We hold so much potential for teaching each other, for gladdening each other’s hearts—I don’t want to shut myself off to you any longer.
Don’t misunderstand me. Not every deeply-held belief holds equal weight and water. But grace alights upon people and bestows equal worth, offering us all the same chances to see God and share his overwhelming light.
I wish I could be wrong about this, and stay wrong about you. But the burden of living apart outweighs the struggle to hold all kinds of people in tension; it even surpasses the heaviness of bearing witness as they kick against one another. Caring about someone means offering them every opportunity to be right; loving them as yourself means sticking around whether they make it there or not.
That’s what my mother was talking about, I think. God, let me line up behind her example.