I have this distinct childhood memory: I’m six or so, outside our little frame house with a big, wide porch, next to the azaleas whose buds we nipped before they could bloom. Everything is sort of floating by my eyes—I’m spinning. I am realizing, smartly, that you don’t need to go to church to be a Christian and I am very proud of myself for this.
It’s funny now to say this because if you know my parents, you know they darken the door of the church for just about every event now. They’ve always loved them some Jesus, though. And we went to church growing up, but not always. There were five kids, you know? That’s ten pairs of small shoes to find every time you have to go somewhere.
What I was realizing, at the tender age of six or seven, was that true religion wasn’t about religious structures, but the story I began to build up around my little bud of knowledge—the bud that got nipped too early—was that you don’t need people to be a Christian.
I was using the wrong pronouns.
I think it was the Charleston church shooting in 2015 that changed things for me. Before Charleston, the people crying out for justice were race-baiters and more harmful to the people they wanted to help than helpful. Now, I see those people as leaders and I am humbled and soundly taught Christianity by their sacrificial efforts.
I don’t know what it was about the Charleston shooting. I suspect the undeniable innocence of the victims—no way to skew that—and the combined efforts of people telling their stories about race that made it possible for the Holy Spirit to rip the wool off my eyes. Rarely have I ever experienced such a quick change-of-face. I think of my spinning six-year-old self. What she needed to understand—but wouldn’t, until a white man shot up a black church nearly thirty years later—is that the gospel is we.
I started thinking about who was in the room with me. Who was in the house next door, and across the street. Who was on Instagram with me. My books started changing. Who I followed on the internet started changing. I started listening to the same stories and headlines and narratives, but with very different ears. And that’s when I began to realize another grave mistake:
I was using the wrong pronouns.
I began to see the Bible differently—read it through we eyes, not me eyes.
The leaders I started listening to, now that I didn’t have defensiveness or ignorance to protect me, didn’t think about me, they thought about we. I began to see the Bible differently—read it through we eyes, not me eyes. It was all like jumping into an ice-cold lake on a blistering hot summer day: a great shock, a gasp, a breathlessness, and then—delight! Refreshment! Why is everyone else still on the shore?
Before, when I read the Bible, I read it through my eyes, at face value. I didn’t understand it had history. Used literary devices. Had a point of view. And I didn’t recognize my own point of view. I missed that when Jesus taught us how to pray, he taught us to call upon our father. To ask for our sins to be forgiven, even as we forgive. And that he pointed us to our sins first.
I’m learning the difference between judging and condemning. There’s a kind of Christian weighing and balancing—seeing myself in your sin, but loving us both too much to let us stay there. And then there’s a kind of condemnation that makes me mean and you the brunt of my meanness.
The truth, of course, is that we are connected though we cannot see blood that pumps between us, all from the same heart. The gospel as I know it now is as flesh and blood as my body, sinew to sinew and bone to bone. I can no more flourish as a Christian than the rest of my body. Could my elbow flourish if my heart is diseased? I may die with a perfectly preserved elbow, but I’ll still die.
The irony is that my gospel before was tidy and neat. It hurt less. But it was less alive. The gospel in me now is alive, and breathing in the body I belong to. It is a suffering, hurting, groaning gospel—a gospel with a suffering Savior.