I learned pretty quickly that I was supposed to fly right, wear khaki, vote Republican and strive for middle management. This complicated my re-entry into all things Christian.
My life had stabilized a bit in the three years since my dad’s death. My mom completed her Master’s degree and she was home after work. My sister was in middle school doing whatever it is middle school girls do. I was driving my ’77 Cutlass, running for senior class president and dating the girl who would become the Winnie Cooper to my Kevin Arnold.
There was a guy from the outreach ministry at my high school who had a knack for talking to me about Jesus while being sensitive to the deal I’d made with God to stay on His side of the universe while I stayed on mine. He knew his subject matter—both Jesus and me—and kept harping on the anti-authority stories about Jesus. It worked. I was intrigued.
Keep in mind my spiritual life from the church nursery to my dad’s funeral was wonderfully Alabama Episcopal. We were a rare breed and we were serious about the liturgy and stained glass and candles followed by a covered dish lunch every week. There were plenty of picnics with kegs and my dad took the nickname “whisky-palian” pretty seriously. They were hardcore about both the worship of God and the table/party…which certainly a draw for the Irish in me.
But Duffy kept inviting me to his Bible church. I’m not sure why I went the first time, but I know that I was pretty naïve about the visit.
I didn’t do anything out-of-the-ordinary that first Sunday. I drove into the parking lot with the windows down and the Jensen cranked up playing the Clash. I was wearing a ¾ sleeved baseball undershirt that had the local hard-rock radio station call letters on it. Flip flops (standard issue) and jeans with holes in the knees. At that time I was wearing an ear cuff since piercings and tattoos were verboten at home and school.
And I got looks.
The kind that either said, “it’s great that Duffy is bringing in those lost kids” or “it’s a stage that he’ll grow out of” or “we’ll have Bob talk to him after the initial breaking-in period.”
After that initial breaking in period people did start talking to me. About the music that I loved. Asking kinda personal questions about what my Winnie Cooper and I were doing when we were alone. About how I presented myself. About the political thoughts I had regarding Reagan’s America. About what movies I needed to stop going to. About the American Dream and how my college choice could let me grab my share of it.
I was fascinated with the revolutionary Jesus that Duffy and Bob and Pastor Mickey kept talking about it. I was annoyed with the version I was hearing from the rank and file. There was a gap I couldn’t make sense of.
But they did care about me. It was a nice respite from the loneliness of the past three years…even if that care came with a few unspoken (but clearly communicated nonetheless) conditions. I was drawn to them even if I’d traded silver, candles and stained glass for plastic communion cups, acoustic worship and AWANA squares. Since Bible was their middle name they focused on getting me in that. I gradually walked away from the Book of Common Prayer but I can still step back into it anytime I’m with my Episcopal peeps. It’s on my brain’s hard drive.
What was cool was that, in my naivety, they listened to my honest questions about God and Jesus and the Bible. I was an ideal youth group kid. I really wanted to know, and when I’d ask questions it made the Bible-church-from-the-cradle kids either show how much they knew to be true or how much they toed their own party line. Duffy and Bob and Pastor Mickey—and eventually a guy named Dave who handled the day-in, day-out me—loved it when I’d make folks in the church revisit what they thought they knew.
In short, even though they weren’t big fans of my music or taste in clothes, they made time for me. They appreciated what I brought to their table. They gave me a hearing. They were patient with me. They majored in the majors and minored in the minors with me. As leaders, they were a lot more open than the volunteers and random adults in that local gathering of about 400. My guess is they had meetings about me initiated by the concerns of the latter.
They “got” me. They gave me space to let the Holy Spirit do His thing on His timetable.
I wasn’t lonely anymore.
I learned a few things from going through the loneliness and coming out the other side with the Tribe.
First, they were pretty clear that there was room for an outlier. I’m not sure they ever put it into words, but the leaders seemed to welcome a different perspective. “Why are you always late to church?” they’d ask. “Because the music is bad.” “How is it bad?” “It’s too slow and the words are about joy but nobody really seems joyful singing them. Last night at Black Flag we sang along with the band about how we’re going to rise above and we all really meant it. Here, they just sing what’s on the overhead like robots.”
“Huh. Well, let me tell you about the history behind that song…”
And it was that way about almost everything I questioned, from Bible interpretation to the night they brought an expert in “backward masking” to tell us about the evil rock and roll (“Am I the only one in this room that thinks this is total nonsense or no?”). They were really cool that way. Even though I was an outlier in almost everything, I learned that it was okay to be one. That I have value and a place in the tribe even if I’m off the well-worn path to Republican khaki American Dream middle management.
Second, I learned that I had to deal with pride and give grace. See, you can’t always be the one who is catered to. That’s not how family works. There are plenty of little old ladies who were offended by my wearing my Atlanta Braves cap backward to the church service. Or my Ramones shirt. Or my cassette tape of the band “X” full volume as I came into the church parking lot. I needed to learn that my view of how this revolutionary Jesus wants me to live isn’t the way he wants them to live.
I’m a big fan of receiving grace, not so much on giving it. If I could serve these blue-haired prayer warriors and understated heroes of the faith by leaving my cap in the car or wearing the good jeans or collared shirt with the penguin on it, maybe that’s one less battle to fight. What’s it to me to turn my music down? Maybe I do need to think through the movies I’m seeing. I could learn from every question somebody asked me, and maybe I needed to re-think my positions, no?
I also needed to value the legalistic, behaviorally-managed, khaki-wearing, Republican-voting (full disclosure, I’ve voted Republican several times, so please don’t infer my political leanings from my repetition of that, okay?) middle managers. There’s just as much room in the Kingdom for them as there is for me. It’d be a pretty boring Body if everybody thought alike and lived alike. God’s working on all of us on His timetable and I’m glad I was taught that, too. That give-and-take way of life together is a lesson we’d all do well to implement more often.
Lastly, I began to value the importance of community, both large and small, in my life. If you’ve ever been lonely, you realize how meaningful it is. Even when it’s messy. Even when it’s full-throttle disagreement. Iron sharpens iron. And when I was just rolling through life lonely and divorced from any meaningful Christian community. I didn’t realize how much I began to just accept the ways of the world as normative. The Tribe, even at our very worst, well, they’re my Tribe. Warts and all. In all the forms they take.
And, my new community in my new urban setting has more than their fair share of youth and tattoos. There is room for them in the Kingdom. There is room for the more conservative and homogenous in the Kingdom, too. Either we’re all God’s children in our individual and collective beauty, or we’re all just living a lie.
And I have to say that it’s nice to know that I won’t be lonely. Ever.