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What I wish I'd said
A bit of news to begin:
Every month on the Third Thursday, the paid subscription community is invited to a live Zoom conversation with a special guest at the Cottage. On October 20 at 4PM Eastern, I’m hosting Professor Julie Ingersoll from the University of North Florida in an important conversation about Christian nationalism and the midterm elections.
Not only is Julie a world-class expert on this subject — and the author of Building God’s Kingdom: Inside the World of Christian Reconstruction — she’s also one of my closest friends. We first met in 1991 and have been working on and worried about politics and evangelicalism since then! You’ll get to eavesdrop on the kind of conversations we’ve been having for three decades.
If you’re not a paid subscriber, this is a great moment to join. You can sign-up or upgrade to a paid subscriber by clicking the button below.
The Zoom link will be sent out on Thursday, October 20 at 2PM, about two hours before the live gathering. If you can’t join us, don’t worry! I will send a recording of the conversation to all paid subscribers about 24 hours after the live event so you won’t miss it.
If you have any topic you’d like me to address with Dr. Ingersoll, just hit reply to this email and send me your specific questions.
Have you ever regretted not saying something you should have said?
I sure have. And one of those moments just happened to me.
Last week, I spoke at Theology Beer Camp, a gathering hosted by my friend Tripp Fuller. Of course, any event with “theology” and “beer” in the title is bound to be fun — and it was. But there was a somber side as well.
During her talk, Professor Grace Ji-Sun Kim wanted to know the religious affiliation of the audience. She asked people to raise their hands when she called out denominations. Presbyterians? A few hands. Episcopalians? Scattered raised hands. UCC? A couple of hands went up. Methodist? Less than a dozen. And it went on — very little in the way of traditional denominational identity — with maybe a fifth of the attendees having raised their arms while the rest sat with their hands in their laps.
With a kind of laughing frustration, Grace finally blurted out, “Who are you people anyway?”
Someone behind me said, “We’re ex-evangelicals.”
That’s the somber side of what was a fun, energetic, smart, and enthusiastic crowd. Various journeys had brought them together, but most of those stories included religious trauma, familial rejection, and the loss of friends, jobs, and community. Almost every person I talked to had experienced getting kicked out of something (usually an evangelical college, a para-church ministry, or a conservative denomination) and few family relationships were healthy or intact. People shared about being pushed out for coming out, for being a woman with a call to preach, for asking unacceptable theological questions, and for refusing to vote for Donald Trump. There were heartbreaking testimonies from the various platforms and in private conversations. Beer flowed, but so did tears.
It was a powerful thing being part of a community constituted, in some degree, by rejection and pain.
At one point, while I was sitting on a panel, a vision flashed across my mind’s eye. I saw Jesus, wounds visible, reaching wide arms to surrounded and hold the entire room, all those in the space, every beautiful face and body. The loving presence of a bleeding God, not as a sacrifice for sin, but as the healing, accepting Abba — “How I have wanted to gather you together as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings!” Safe. With Jesus. With Mother God. We might have been wounded, but we were also held.
It was good to be together. With beer. And with Jesus.
On Sunday following Beer Camp, I was invited to preach at the Church of the Holy Family in Chapel Hill. During my final two years at Duke, from 1989-1991, I’d been a member of Holy Family. The church was a healing place for me — and I’ve written about it over the years (most notably, in my first book, Strength for the Journey). I preached a more “churchy” version of the sermon from Theology Beer Camp on Luke 18:1-8.
After the sermon, a few people joined me in the church library for a lively Q&A about the arc of my writing, the status of the mainline, and issues facing congregations. Near the end of the conversation, one person asked me what I thought of evangelicalism — if there was anything “good” about evangelical religion.
I didn’t think I’d been terribly negative about evangelicalism in that library conversation. Over the years, I’ve been accused of being too critical — even “mean” — regarding evangelical religion. But I’m not sure the questioner was familiar with that complaint. However, his question seemed to hold a little of a “gotcha” possibility, the kind of question that might have been a litmus test. Whatever the intention, it didn’t rest well with my soul.
And so, I said that I had always appreciated the emphasis in evangelicalism on personal religious experience. At their best, evangelicals understand the importance of entering into a deep spiritual connection with God. And that’s a good thing.
I don’t know why I said what I did. I’d been open and honest in the conversation at Holy Family. They didn’t make me feel unsafe. But, at that moment, with that particular question, I felt interrogated. And I reverted to protecting myself. I once again became Diana in front of the tenure committee at the evangelical college trying to prove that she was worthy to teach there; I was Diana hedging her bets because she is tired of being kicked around by cruel Christians on social media; I was Diana wanting to be liked.
It was a true answer, in an academic way. But it wasn’t an entirely truthful answer from my heart. And for that, I’m truly sorry.
In hindsight, this is what I would have said had I not censored myself:
I wish you’d been with me over the last few days. Down the street. At Theology Beer Camp. With a couple of hundred people, mostly in their 30s and 40s, whose lives were nearly ruined by growing up in evangelicalism.
I wish you’d listened to Trey Pearson, the successful musician who came out as gay and lost everything, only to find true and lasting love outside of evangelical boundaries. I wish you’d heard the pain from all the women who weren’t allowed to preach, only able to find their voices once they left their churches. I wish you’d engaged the conversations about the bad theology that led to domestic violence, and how escape was the only option. I wish you’d been there as people told stories of how their congregations gave themselves over to QAnon, white Christian nationalism, and MAGA. I wish you’d heard how they resisted being recruited into a political and social movement based upon twisting the Bible where hatred is disguised as “love.”
I wish you’d been there to see the persistent courage of those who sensed that the God of the Cosmos was not the God of evangelicalism — and they chased down that pearl of great price no matter what it cost and what they lost in the process.
Had you been there, you never could have asked me a question about what’s good in evangelicalism — because the testimonies and witness of all those ex-evangelicals is the living answer to what is, in this room, only a theoretical question. Ask THEM the question — the people, the human beings who were treated as litter by evangelical leaders and institutions on a crusade for religious, social, and political power, a quest that wrecked their souls and their sanity. Spend three days with those wounded, joyful thrivers, those who were kicked out, fled, crawled out, or backed slowly out the rear door. Those who are hanging around the edges for dear life, those deconstructing and reconstructing their lives, those who are still haunted by nightmares of heresy trials, purity culture, and rapture fears.
Go ask them if there’s any good in evangelicalism.
And that’s what I wish I would have said. Because that’s the whole truth.
Nobody escapes being wounded. We are all wounded people, whether physically, emotionally, mentally, or spiritually. The main question is not “How can we hide our wounds?” so we don't have to be embarrassed but “How can we put our woundedness in the service of others?” When our wounds cease to be a source of shame and become a source of healing, we have become wounded healers.
I dress a wound in the side, deep, deep,
But a day or two more, for see the frame all wasted and sinking,
And the yellow-blue countenance see.
I dress the perforated shoulder, the foot with the bullet-wound,
Cleanse the one with a gnawing and putrid gangrene, so sickening, so offensive,
While the attendant stands behind aside me holding the tray and pail.
I am faithful, I do not give out,
The fractur’d thigh, the knee, the wound in the abdomen,
These and more I dress with impassive hand, (yet deep in my breast a fire, a burning flame.)
— Walt Whitman, from “The Wound-Dresser,” a poem about war that applies to those called into the work of addressing religious trauma as well.
when shall your wounds
welcome their scabs?
daily your kingdom squeaks
and leaps to the starlight
it wants all of you. . .
— Uche Nduka, untitled. Please read the entire poem HERE.
SOUTHERN LIGHTS 2023 is back to its regular January schedule!
This coming January, Brian McLaren and I are hosting extraordinary guests including Irish poet Pádraig Ó Tuama, theologian Reggie Williams, and Franciscan sister and scientist Ilia Delio in a weekend festival of reimagining faith in words, for the world, and in context of the cosmos — poetry, theology, and science!
We’re also going to do live, on-stage podcasts with guest pod hosts Grace Ji-Sun Kim and Tripp Fuller — and great musics from the wonderful Ken Medema.
Please join us in Georgia at beautiful St. Simons Island or virtually online. CLICK HERE for info and registration!