My pre-Thanksgiving commute this morning was dreary; the shale colored sky with no sun in sight, the fewer cars on the road, the blah feeling that comes with having to work the day before a major holiday. I listened to sports talk radio, as I normally do on my drive into the office. As I passed the Alamo Drafthouse Theater, I saw a pristine-white stretch limo merging onto the interstate. That’s not a sight you see every day. As I pulled up alongside it and got a better view, my feeling of amusement quickly soured to cynicism. Emblazoned all over the exterior were assorted decals for a local church. I’m pretty sure if Jesus was living today, He wouldn’t be rolling around in a limo. The tinted windows prevented me from seeing the driver, but couldn’t help but give a condescending shake of my head as I drove off.
I have a somewhat uncomfortable and confusing relationship with organized religion. Born and raised in a Christian home, I went off to college as a devout and more than eager Bible-thumper. I played judge, jury, and executioner towards my classmates and friends, joyfully firing round after round of scripture and verse into them over their sins, all the while overlooking mine. I surrounded myself with other like-minded Christians and looked down on anyone who didn’t think, talk, or pray like I did. My self-righteous attitude destroyed friendships and played a large part in the demise of my first long-term relationship. Undaunted and full of self-pride, I left Lawrence, Kansas behind a semester and a half short of graduating to begin seminary. I was going to be a pastor someday.
Fast forward a couple of years: My wife and I are newlyweds and working 40 hours a week. In addition to our day jobs, I’m pursuing my seminary studies and we’re serving unofficially as youth pastors at the church we’re currently attending. I enjoy it, but its a lot of work: A typical week was chock-full of sermon prep, worship team practice, pastoral meetings, and leadership workshops, in addition to the youth group service on Wednesday nights and the standard service on Sunday mornings. It was safe to say that church dominated our lives.
Long story short, it became apparent to my wife and I that full-time ministry was not in the cards for us. I won’t go into great detail, but my relationship with the pastor fractured, primarily over what I saw was a focus more on numbers and data points rather than the lives being changed. Pizza parties and video game console giveaways are fun events to have, but are not sustainable methods to grow a youth group, you know?. I craved authenticity, but instead, I drove home most Wednesday nights feeling like a fraud. If this is what counted for the “Lord’s work,” I wanted no part of it.
After resigning from our positions leading the youth group, my wife and I put church on the back burner for a while. We needed time to emotionally and spiritually decompress after the conversations we were privy to “behind closed doors.” After we started our family, we slowly but surely found our way back to church and into serving in various ministries.
Today, I can say that I’m in a much better spot than I was ten years ago. I’ve long given up on preaching fire and brimstone, nor do I harbor any grudges towards the pastor I served under. By most people’s standards, I’m probably not a good “Christian”: I curse like a sailor, love beer, have tattoos, struggle with doubts, am not a registered Republican, and readily admit inappropriate jokes hold a special place in my heart. I have strong beliefs and convictions, but am cognizant of the fact that not everyone will share those beliefs and furthermore, it’s not my job to convince them I’m “right.” In short, I have yet to meet someone who was fundamentally changed through engaging in an argument on Facebook.
There’s a quote that’s commonly attributed to Saint Francis of Assisi: “Preach the Gospel at all times. When necessary, use words.” I think that sums up my spiritual outlook pretty well. In being my messy and authentic self, I hope to give others that same freedom without fear of being judged. The reality is sometimes life sucks, that we screw up in spite of our good intentions, and that none of us are going to make it out alive. The best any of us can do is to cultivate our relationship with Christ, try and be more like Him, and be less like an asshole. Right?
As I left work today, I slowed my car at a stoplight that is popular with panhandlers. Sure enough, as I eased into the outermost left lane, a man was there. He was probably in his mid-twenties, balding, and spindly like a beanstalk. In his hands, a tattered cardboard sign read, “STARVING COLLEGE STUDENT.” Full disclosure, my first thought was undoubtedly unJesus-like: Probably some dude whose parents got sick of him mooching off of them…probably kicked him out of their basement…guy should get a job and drop the panhandling. Remember what I said in the last paragraph about trying to be more like Jesus and less like an asshole?
Epic fail on my part.
Yet, as I looked at him, my attitude of superiority softened. I didn’t have any food, save for a bite sized Butterfinger lodged under my seat. I didn’t have any cash either. Man, he looks miserable out there in the cold. I awkwardly contorted the top half of my body around my seat, my right hand groping blindly on the floor of the backseat. I felt the familiar fuzz of my winter gloves and snagged both of them in one motion. I looked at the man, who eyed me curiously as I rolled down my window. “Um, I’m sorry I don’t have any food or money, but I have this pair of gloves if you want them.” He came over enthusiastically and took them from me.
“Thanks man…appreciate it.”
A few seconds later, the light turned green, and I was off.