There are moments in life that change everything; change the way we view the world, who we are, the path we take, our choices, our desires, us. I can look back over my life’s path and see several of these moments. But, the one that stands out for me most right now was the moment I was labeled “not Christian enough.”
I grew up in a Catholic home. We went to church every Sunday. I completed all of the required sacraments. I volunteered, joined youth group and went on retreats. Sure, I judged a little bit, lied sometimes, and was even occasionally jealous of others. In my married life, I became Lutheran. I wanted to keep the traditions but loose the guilt. I loved the “all are welcome” proclamation of the church we joined. Religion felt open and forgiving. It felt accepting enough for a judgey, jealous, liar like me. I labeled myself a Christian woman, feeling enough despite my imperfections.
But the “Christian woman” label was not meant to last. When my freshman was in first grade, the “not enough” definition was added from a fellow first grade mom. When just the week before I had been one of her Christian friends, one comment of support for the current PE unit instantly banished me from her circle; and this mom ruled the social circles at my son’s school.
It turned out the sin to lower my Christian status had nothing to do with my judgment, jealousy or lies told. It turned out my sin was a love for yoga and a tolerance for something with roots in another faith practice. Since I expressed a love for the Christian yoga class I was taking, it was deduced by this mom that my standards were not high enough. Where I thought it was great the kids were learning breathing and awareness of their bodies in PE, she thought it was a threat to their souls, an invitation to welcome the devil into their mind. So without another word, I was banished and labeled.
It hurt to be told I wasn’t Christian enough; but then my designation was transferred to my oldest. Among his first grade friends, your Christian identity was a badge of honor. Once the shine was tarnished from my halo, it caused his status as acceptable friend to be put in jeopardy. He began to be excluded on the playground and rejected in the lunchroom. His behavior was picked apart. He was told his innocent belief in Santa, who was not found in the bible, meant he wasn’t a real Christian. The irony of this mom’s Christian child leading a bullying campaign against my child caused me to question what I thought I knew about the being Christian. That pain became unbearable. I withdrew from anyone who I associated with this brand of label making.
I held onto my anger and the questions it created for a long time. Really what I did was allow this mom’s judgment and her definition to influence what I thought of myself. I asked a lot of really tough questions
Did I really know what it meant to be Christian?
Did this mom know better than I?
Where all those years of religious school and bible study worthless?
Were yoga and Santa really so bad?
And then I began to look for the answers.
I read. I talked. I studied. I looked inside the bible and outside. I looked at ideas from all perspectives, inside and outside Christianity. I took my time. I let go of the hurt.
Bottom line, my conclusion from all of this work is Jesus was a rebel. He did not conform to religious rules or expectations. Jesus was never Jewish enough for the church leaders. He is the perfect poster child for the “not enoughs” like me. In fact, he welcomed the not enoughs and changed their lives. He stood up to bullies. He took chances on people who didn’t deserve chances. He leaned into what was difficult. He was not enough, yet somehow enough.
I know this fits with me. This is an example I can get behind. When I look at his story in more depth, I see him embrace tradition, yet require more than a list of rules. I direct my focus to Matthew 22
where Jesus was asked which of the commandments was greatest. He answered love, love for God and love for your neighbor.
I look to Luke 10 and the parable of the Good Samaritan.
Here Jesus uses the story of the Good Samaritan to illustrate what it means to ultimately be a good neighbor. I realize that labels don’t matter; and moving forward I need to start with love every time. I might not be Christian enough; but I can always start with love.
And the truth is, when I think of how I want to raise my children, how I want them to be when they leave my house, I think this rebel Jesus is a pretty good example. I know it is because I grew up learning his stories and studying his example as an adult. I know that makes his example of character lessons easier than using other traditions. But, I don’t shy away from other traditions. I know in my life I have needed several examples of how to choose love. Love isn’t always the easiest, or most intuitive choice for me. If my children can learn to love unconditionally, lean into what is difficult, welcome all, change lives, stand up to bullies and give second chances, I am going to use whatever examples I can find to help them find the courage to live that way. I care less about how we label them and more about their character. If they want to look for examples of how to love outside Christianity, I know this knowledge will strengthen their understanding of faith and build tolerance for others. I welcome those qualities. If at the end of the day they learn to truly love without conditions or labels, then let them rebel.
Eight years have passed since this moment I called defining. I look at how much I have learned about love, tolerance, faith, and the labels I put on myself. I realize how this one moment began the process of teaching me how I want my children to learn about character and faith; how I want them to define themselves. Heck, I look at how this moment one began to teach me to define myself. Looking back, I feel grateful to this mom and her son for the lesson, as painful as it was at the time.