On the 17th day, I’m really grateful for some of the gifts that being raised as an Evangelical gave me, even if I no longer find myself in that camp.
I want to be real clear here – the evangelical church has harmed people. Heck, it has harmed me. But I’m still grateful for some things I got there that I have held on to.
The evangelical church taught me to study and revere the Bible. In Vacation Bible School as a young child, we would do Bible drills – where we all stood in a row with our Bibles in our hands, and then a verse would be called out – “Isaiah 53:5!” and there would be a mad rush to be the first person to find the scripture in question, and then to shout it out at the top of your lungs.
“BUT HE WAS WOUNDED FOR OUR TRANSGRESSIONS, HE WAS BRUISED FOR OUR INIQUITIES: THE CHASTISEMENT OF OUR PEACE WAS UPON HIM; AND WITH HIS STRIPES WE ARE HEALED!”
And if it was you that called out the verse first. you got a point, and whoever had the most points won. I won a lot. I memorized all the books of the Bible in first grade. I learned to memorize scripture. I can still recall vast portions of the New Testament and Psalms in the King James English of my childhood.
They taught me to take the Bible literally, and I no longer do that. But I do take it very seriously, and they taught me to savor its stories, to embrace its rhythms, to believe that the will of God could be discerned through stories, and to turn to memorized stories and poems for comfort. I’m grateful for all of that.
And they taught me to pray. Prayer was a real thing to them – not a meditative retreat, but an actual conversation with God. Sometimes it was pleading, sometimes it was devotion, and sometimes it was anger and even screaming. But the real presence of God in hearing our prayers was never in doubt.
We distrusted “written prayers”, as prayer was to be a spontaneous outpouring of our hearts, with never a doubt that God wanted our raw emotions and pleadings. There was a sense in which we believed we could change God’s mind – that “the fervent prayer of a righteous man availeth much,” – and that prayer, as they say, changed things.
While I no longer hold that same view of prayer, I learned intimacy with God in that setting, grew up believing I could talk to God as a parent, and that what I wanted mattered to God. I’m grateful for all of that, too.
But the main gift Evangelicalism gave me was the belief that people can change, and that I not only can, but should play a role in their changing.
Changing people was all we talked about, and we took it very seriously. We learned how to tell our friends about what we believed. We learned what objections they would have and how to overcome them. We went to camps, retreats, and lectures to learn how to do it. We prayed hard for people to change. We raised money to fund programs to get people to change. We would work hard to get into situations where we would be the only people who believed what we believed, full of the confidence that God would use us to accomplish God’s purpose.
While what I want people to believe has changed, and what I believe has changed, my belief that others can be changed has not diminished. Nor has my belief that I can be part of that change.
I work hard to tell my friends what I believe – any 3-day search of my Facebook timeline would make that abundantly clear. I’m not hiding my beliefs under a bushel, no sir-ee. And I’m always ready to “give an answer to everyone who asks” me to explain the reason for the hope that I have, and to do it with gentleness and respect.
I no longer believe that people will go to Hell if they do not accept Jesus as their savior. But I do believe that if the racist, the greedy, the powerful, the ego driven and the rest do not change, they will bring hell down upon themselves and others, including more vulnerable people. And I believe that the God who heard the cry of the oppressed in Egypt and raised Moses up to liberate them still hears the cry of the oppressed, and still lifts up people to liberate them.
I fight hard to be in rooms with people who disagree with me – not out of some mealy-mouthed idea of tolerance, as I refuse to tolerate hate, homophobia, or racism – but because I want to convert people who are racist, homophobic, hateful, and bigoted into people who are not those things.
I pray fervently for people who disagree with me on climate change, vaccine science, LGBT issues, and more, to change just as we used to pray for people to come to church. I study the positions of the anti-vaxers and the homophobic so I can counter them, in much the same way I used to study other religions so I could convert their adherents to our side.
I believe people can change. I believe we can help them change. I believe nobody is beyond saving, is worth giving up on. I believe we can change the world.
I learned that in the Evangelical church. And I’m grateful for that.