In the last few months I’ve heard a lot of people talk about the damage evangelical Christianity is doing. I’ve even talked about it. For better or for worse, I don’t intend to add to any of attacks concerning recent issues. I can’t clear up any of the pain people are experiencing from the evangelical culture wars, interpretation of scripture, or purity culture. I can’t talk committed evangelicals out of their beliefs, or liberal Christians out of theirs. In fact, I don’t want to. While I no longer participate in evangelical culture, I deeply value the experiences I had because they inform who I am today.
Would it have been freeing to grow up without a constant and deep fear of the Other?
Would it have contributed better to church flourishing to view scripture in the context of Christian community and tradition?
Would it have been healthier to view sexuality as an integral and biological part of humanity, rather than a source of shame?
The answer to all these questions is yes. Of course, a thousand times, yes. But I didn’t, and maybe you didn’t either. In fact, evangelical or not, a lot of us can relate to the misguided, well-meant shortcomings of our childhoods.
But I can’t change what you think. I can’t fix any of these problems. I can’t make World Vision reverse its reversed decision.
I can tell a story, though. I can tell you about being broken, not by the crushing weight of evangelical normative pressures in my childhood, but by compassion and by stones.
I can tell you about a dark sanctuary where the only light shines on a band playing a song about God’s goodness, love, healing, or friendship. Whatever the lyrics are, no matter how redundant the chord progressions, the music invokes more emotion in you than you’ve experienced in the last three months combined. You feel empty and full all at once, and before you know it you are having an experience, even if you walked in with a complete reticence to God, the church, or Christians.
In high school, I was a star evangelical, the kind that carried my bright pink Bible to class and sat up front at all the youth group functions. I refused to date anyone until I had graduated. And I was so sincere.
There I was, at the front of a sanctuary, steeped in the synthesized emotion of the moment, kneeling, praying, contemplating. I didn’t respond to whatever version of an alter call that had been given that night (even at the time, I didn’t think it was a good idea to respond to every single alter call), but the girl on the floor just a few inches in front of me did.
I had just met her the day before. She was closed off, rebellious, and, to me, rather mysterious. I felt like I should pray for her, so I did. When one of the adults came over to pray for her and talk her through a commitment to Christ, she said she didn’t want any of it. What was she doing at the front of the church, then?
She said she didn’t want God’s love or anyone else’s. She talked about her mean step-dad and cruel people at school. She said she didn’t have any friends. She wasn’t the first person I had heard say things like this. A lot of teenagers feel that way. A lot of teenagers struggle with feeling accepted and loved, and they are, on average, a lot more volatile about it than adults who struggle with the same things.
She said she had built up walls around her heart, and it had turned to stone. That was exactly how she was going to keep it. She said that if she let God into her heart, if she let herself feel loved and connected, she’d have to take down the walls. If she did that, her mean step dad and the people at school could hurt her. She’d have to feel that too. All of the brokenness in life would get in if love got in too.
She wasn’t talking to me, but I heard everything she said. Then I began to weep. I was overwhelmed with compassion for her. I couldn’t imagine damage so permanent that God couldn’t heal it. I also knew that her heart walls would get in the way of loving others. Nothing gets in, but nothing gets out, either. Her pain was so evident, but her voice and face were so calm. As she recounted the frustrations of her home and school life, she was calm. Her walls were working well. They were not poetry.
The baffled adult left to get reinforcement. I continued to weep, to long for her to know love and let that be her strength in the face of her suffering. A second adult came and asked her how he could help. The girl said she didn’t need help. Then, pointing at me, she said, “Help her; she’s the one crying.”
Through my tears I said, “I’m crying because I love you.”
I think we were both genuinely surprised.
“You don’t want to love me,” she replied.
I grant that this was an exceptionally odd encounter to have with a near stranger. The adults didn’t get any further with her. She was present. She wanted someone to break down her walls, but she knew it wasn’t safe. I don’t know what happened to her after that weekend. I don’t even know her name.
However, this moment has stuck with me. I don’t know what song was playing or what the take away message of the evening was supposed to be. I remember this wounded girl who understood and expressed what I spend so much of my time struggling with. This stone-hearted girl understood vulnerability—well, half of it. She was right; letting herself feel loved in the safety of our weekend away from the world was easy. We had a band adept at evoking very positive emotion. We had adults around us whose mission was to love and cherish us, and we all had homes with plenty of dysfunction to go back to. So this girl knew that letting love in meant letting pain in. It’s what loving in an imperfect world is like. I think what shook me up, beyond her account of painful life experiences, was that while she had the premise right, she had drawn the wrong conclusion. She treated pain like a heavy weight when love is the proven champion. And that is what broke my heart.