The pastor in the church where I first knew Jesus wore robes and stolls and prayed in tongues. I said the Creeds and Confessions along with the adults and waited impatiently after Sunday School for the hours-long free worship session to wrap up every week. It wasn’t until after we left that church years later that I learned it was unusual for an Episcopal church to be Charismatic. We spent a year at a megachurch where we drank coffee and met nobody. We worshiped with the Methodists and learned the difficulties of keeping church bells in tune in an ancient and crumbling building, the painful beauty of sitting through a small choir’s Special Music selection for the week, and that you have pancakes on Shrove Tuesday in the church basement for reasons I still don’t understand. My Anglican youth group leaders visited me in the hospital when I broke my leg in the sixth grade, and I dressed as an Egyptian princess and found baby Moses in the reeds for Vacation Bible School for the Baptist kids. In high school, I spent more time in my Evangelical youth group hangout spot than I did at home. And through it all, I learned about who God is, what God wants from us, what we should offer in return.
Growing up, each lesson felt like lump of clay that I was handed by these brothers and sisters. I knew that some of them held their ideas more vehemently than others and that not all of these ideas were in agreement with one another, but I added and reformed each new piece of clay as I received it, and I merged these lumps together to form my idea of God. I never believed that any one piece was the full image, and I never doubted that this clay was a mutual medium, that God was constantly shaping me in return. It was the most intimate relationship of my life, formed waking early to journal and staying up late to study.
In college, I went to my first churches with hard lines. These churches taught me what it meant to be a member of their denomination rather than what it meant to be a Christian. They told me God was bigger than my conception of him, that my sculptured understanding was not really sinful, but it was incorrect in every way. They told me that the Bible, that living, breathing document imbibed with all the power of metaphor and truth and hope, was not talking to me—it says one clear, indisputable thing and one thing only. They said they knew what that one thing was, and that they would teach it to me--provided I understood that disagreement was rebellion and discussion was welcome only within the provided framework. They inspected my clay sculpture, with ideas cobbled together from these brothers and sisters, held in an open hand with some closer to my heart and some farther away. They inspected that sculpture and corrected my ambiguity on every single part of it. They stretched me; they challenged me; and they broke me.
There is always a tension between wanting to define the world as we think it maybe should be and reconciling ourselves with the way it actually is. Often, this results in a tireless pursuit of a more just world—but I think just as often it results in a naive and reductionist understanding of reality. The planet we’ve been given is vast and unimaginably diverse. If God is the God of all of us, then I can only imagine that the narrower we draw our lines, the more wrong we will be. Using our theology as a rubric for the world tends to be an increasingly limiting activity, and I think we’re much better served by letting our observations of the world influence our theology instead. I certainly spent years of my own life knowing all the rules of how God behaves and where he works, and then learning the poverty of my own understanding as I heard him speak to me through people who could not have been farther outside of those lines.
Holding your orthodoxy with an open hand is the only thing that makes sense to me. I learned about beauty and truth and God through the churches of my youth, but I also learned these things through the churches that taught me that everyone else was wrong. These churches didn’t believe that God showed up anywhere else, but he was with them anyway. God teaches us about himself through those with harmful theologies and those with open hearts, through those on the margins and those we’re trying our hardest to tear off of their thrones so that we can marginalize them. Where can we not find him? If we already know all the answers, we will never be surprised at where God shows up and what he has to say through the next vessel we assumed was too broken to speak. This is at the heart of a generous orthodoxy.
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