I have been thinking about an interesting phenomenon that I have experienced over the past few years. Some of the my friends that I have known for awhile and quite a few that are newer friends were raised or came of age in environments that were very conservative politically and theologically. These environments actively discouraged any sort of questioning of what were considered the “correct” views. As time went by, many of them had questioned and modified some of their theological and political views and had experienced both a sense of relief and freedom and also a degree of pushback and even ostracism from previous relationships as they went through this journey. I frankly felt a sense of disconnect with their experiences as I heard of them. Over time I came to understand that the disconnect I felt was that my own experience had been quite different. I wasn’t raised in a theologically or politically conservative environment. I was raised in a mainline protestant church until I was 16 that didn’t really leave much of a mark on my thinking one way or another and in a household that fairly apolitical – we didn’t really talk about politics at all. In fact, my ruling philosophical outlook (such as it was) that had begun to emerge in my early adolescence was a strange mixture of hedonism (of the sex, drugs and rock & roll variety), generic Reaganism (for some reason I really liked Ronald Reagan and felt a vague, but strong sense of patriotism) and love of fantasy and science fiction. Then I experienced a radical conversion to Christ at the age of 16 in, of all places, a charismatic United Methodist Church that carried with it very strong social and political conservatism. From late adolescence to my mid-20s I pretty much accepted the entire thinking framework I received, theologically and politically but didn’t really live in any sort of culture warrior mode. I went to school at Christ for the Nations, Tarrant County College and Howard Payne University (a Texas Baptist school that was quite orthodox theologically, but not necessarily conservative politically – actually pretty centrist). I learned and thought through many things a bit at a time, but never in a comprehensive way and always in a very nurturing environment. Questioning wasn’t discouraged by my parents or teachers or pastors – but honestly my questioning was fairly limited.
Then I went to seminary at Brite Divinity School at TCU and was beginning the process of candidacy for ordination in the United Methodist Church and for the first time felt a significant challenge to my theological (and by extension my political) viewpoints. This was disorienting for me and in many ways quite scary. I saw viewpoints that I held characterized as either out of touch or inadequate in some settings and downright dangerous and bigoted in others. Viewpoints that I held as pretty uncontroversial were portrayed as controversial and those that I knew were controversial (such as being unequivocally pro-life in regards to abortion) were portrayed as ugly and hateful. These challenges were generally done not a confrontational or threatening way – but in a philosophical and academic way. I didn’t consider myself to be persecuted and didn’t suffer academic or professional harm (my grades were quite good and I sailed through the ordination process). But I was viewed with suspicion or disregard by a not insignificant portion of my professors and denominational supervision and this was a new experience for me. I think I stewarded the experience fairly well. I didn’t become angry or reactionary but I do think I became wiser in the process. I did change the way I thought about certain issues but as a whole I came through the experience relatively unchanged in the sense that I remained (and remain) theologically conservative (by that I mean holding to historic Christian orthodoxy) and politically conservative (although much more critical of the Republican Party and American politics in general and much more aware of where ideas come from and what they mean). I did shed a good deal of legalistic baggage and have a much deeper understanding of the grace of God – but that was less because of a philosophical change and much more because of life experience and experiencing God’s love more deeply.
So back to the original thought. When I sense a disconnect in what other people have experienced, the best response is not to discount their experience or compare it to my own. It’s to let their journey be their journey and let my own be my own. I can benefit from what they have experienced and learned along the way and hopefully they can benefit from mine as well. But the bottom line on any of our journeys is this. Is this bringing me closer to Christ? Am I better positioned now to receive God’s love and grace for myself and to share that with others? A corollary to this (and a good indicator of whether or not I am better positioned to be a good receiver and sharer) would be am I now more charitable in my dealings with others who think differently than I do. Have I made peace with the baggage of my past without giving into bitterness? Am I free to walk away from any relationships that were a part of that past that are toxic without guilt and hate? And am I comfortable in my own skin – regardless of where I am now in the journey?
I have loved hearing the journeys of my friends as they wrestle with the good, the bad and the ugly of where they come from and I hope that I can be an encouragement to each of you along the way.