Lately I’ve been spending as much time as possible with my friend Tammy who has walked this earth twice as long as I have, which makes her absolutely unafraid to talk about any topic under the sun — conversations around racism, sexism, feminism, religion, and child-raising are all a part of our regular repertoire. She raises a granddaughter who calls her mom and who Lola calls her best friend, and if you ever get the chance to spend five minutes talking with Tammy at a school function or have the pleasure of an afternoon in her warm and inviting home, you’ll learn that she embodies just about the greatest sentence ever to exist: Come As You Are.
(I’ll sip my coffee while you find your Nirvana CD)
Have you ever had to fake it to fit in? I have. I learned pretty early on that the opposite of acceptance is comparison – you can’t accept what is when you’re comparing it to what isn’t. And I’ve learned that the best people in this world let you come as you are, because who you are doesn’t threaten who they are. They’re accepting. This is the kind of person I seek to become, but it’s definitely…not how I was raised.
I grew up in the Word of Faith church movement, aka a Christian evangelical megachurch in the suburbs that hosted revivals in the 90’s and spent the early 2000’s and beyond boosting the prosperity gospel. Kate Bowler has a lot of insight on this particular brand of Christianity, and you should look it up, but the gist is that God wants you to be a winner – as long as you’re willing to conform. The Health, Wealth, and Prosperity Message peddled by pastors on TV thrives with people who love to believe that God will honor the right kind of prayers and a certain level of “faith” with blessings on blessings of material means. I mean, who wouldn’t want to believe that, right? But this bizarre interpretation of the text we’re meant to live by leads folks to justify accumulating wealth in the name of God’s plan, or to go broke trying. Worse, those who don’t get their prayers answered often become disillusioned with and frustrated by God. The problems with this theology are evident to an outsider or to anyone who’s read the words Jesus actually said (spoiler alert – God wants us to accumulate a different kind of wealth, the kind based on mercy, compassion, and loving kindness, which is NOT AS FLASHY as owning your own private jet!). Yet this is the doctrine raised me. No one was ever permitted to come as they are – instead, I was required to clean up before I show up, so that others would know I’m “good”, or rather, “good enough”.
This faith-based-on-appearances would later lead to my exit from the church entirely.
In the culture of constant comparison while bowing at the altar of materialism, I was never baptized. I used to hate that as a little kid when my friends would – surprise! – compare their dates of salvation and baptism anniversaries, but my parents always said it was MY choice to make and they didn’t believe in baptizing babies or piercing their ears either, for that matter. The choice was always mine. As I grew up in it, I didn’t believe the message as fully as my peers, or at least not enough to be dunked in front of everyone at the annual all-church picnic at Lake Rebecca. I was sure I needed a rumspringa – what the Amish let their kids do, roam the world in search of truth to believe for themselves before committing to their traditional way of life. No judgement on what happens during your rumspringa – but once you return to the community which raised you, you’re baptized in the faith for life. If you leave again, you’re out for good.
I wasn’t raised Amish, but this is more or less what being brought up in a conservative culture feels like. God could redeem anything and anyone, sure, but if I left the fold I was OUT.
That church had more cliques and in-crowds than my daughter’s middle school.
I faked it for as long as I could, trying to fit in with all the people from my church who had their lives perfectly put together on the outside. I heard the “name it and claim it” gospel until I was sure that they were right, that God really did take our prayers and turn them into some kind of cosmic, urgent to-do list. I kept one baby toe in the waters of that doctrine until I couldn’t believe anymore. I left, went to college, and learned about genocide, hunger, and the ostracization of the poor, and before I knew it Magic Genie God didn’t cut it anymore. I lost a good friend to suicide and addiction, and began to wonder if love isn’t found in the places I’d always looked for it after all. Life’s challenges have a funny way of upheaving our preconceived notions about love, and about God.
I handed the fabrication of my faith back to God and said no thanks, for years, until I met Jesus and realized everything I’d been raised to believe was only a shadow of the truth.
Since then, my return to belief has been a sort of rumspringa all my own, a search for truth in other denominations and many different places. One of those places happens to be the island countertop in my friend Tammy’s southwest Minneapolis kitchen.
Tammy and I have our own beliefs. Hers is love, and so is mine – i’ve just never been able to grasp it outside of the love God has for us, and even then I can barely conceive it in my brain. But we’ve talked about everything around this kitchen countertop. Here is where I’ve learned that showing up as me, or coming as I am, is a key to genuine relationships: with God, and with other people. It is an authentic place with a zero tolerance policy for BS, because that’s who Tammy is as a person. She’s real.
Authenticity is the soil where good friendships grow deep. And this is how Jesus wants us to live with everyone, no matter what they believe.
“Dear children, let’s not merely say that we love each other; let us show the truth by our actions.” 1 John 3:18
Back when I was a spiritual skeptic a with one toe in the water, I tried hard to fit into the crowd so no one would sniff my unbelief. I wore the right clothes, or at least I tried to, using my babysitting money to buy them. We were told to cover up our shoulders so we wouldn’t lead the boys at youth group to sin, as if our spaghetti straps were the reason they couldn’t pay attention in church. I recently had coffee with one of my former youth pastors, and reminded her of a phrase – “modest is hottest!” – which she declared in a sing-songy voice whenever it was time to recite the rules and regulations for women’s wardrobes and involvement in ministry. “I remember you always dressing so cute, though!” she said, missing the point and proving she didn’t remember the mens department shirts and slacks I wore to sing in worship band, in the summer, because jeans were too casual, shorts were strictly off limits and my boobs were too “revealing” for most clothing from the women’s department. How a body part can reveal anything on its own without assigned context was beyond me.
What I’ve learned since then from my sort of rumspringa exploring churches in the Episcopal, Lutheran, Methodist, Baptist, Catholic, and Evangelical theologies, is that true belief is never a fashion show. It’s a posture of the heart, which can be taken wearing anything the wearer deems suitable for worshipping God. And we should feel so comfortable in church, that we come as we are.
A few years back a childhood friend of mine said the reason she stopped going to church is that she, a single mother, could no longer afford to keep up appearances. She didn’t know what to wear, so she simply stopped attending.
This is my cue to remind you that it’s not about what we wear, ever, but especially not at church! Believing it’s about what we look like is so pharisaical, yet common in faith traditions build on performance-based belief.
Without regard to the spirit; self-righteous; hypocritical. I want to live in the spirit realm, be God-righteous, and whatever is the opposite of hypocritical! Don’t you?? I want people to feel at home with me like I do with my friend Tammy. Because when we worry about cleaning up our act and obsessing over what we look like, what it comes down to is wondering “what will these people think or assume about me because I am showing up like this?” But God doesn’t want it to be like that:
Galatians 1:10 NIV
And this is not a thing only in the church: I once had a good friend joke that what I was wearing made her wonder if everything was okay at home, and that stuck with me. I’ve found many people outside the assembly still overly care what other people look like, but it really SHOULD NOT matter.
I have a feeling Jesus couldn’t care less what we look like or what we’re wearing when we discover universal love. He doesn’t say go home and clean yourself up, he just says come, see what I have to offer.
Matthew 11:28 New International Version (NIV)
28 “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest.
Not, “come to bat for me”. Not, “come to change for me”. Just, “come to me”, and find rest. We find rest when we feel at ease with someone, when they are being authentic with us. Why do we add so many barriers that prohibit people from being restfully loved? Why do we, with our words, lay roadblocks in the way of others experiencing Jesus?
Accepting others as they are is a byproduct of accepting ourselves. I could never do that before I knew Jesus already accepted me. And what Jesus has to offer is better than any one denomination’s monopoly on truth could ever be:
I love the Jesus peace I feel at Prince of Peace Lutheran Church in Brooklyn Park, MN. I feel the acceptance of everyone at The Table in South Minneapolis. The wonder of God was tangible at the Episcopal church that housed Lola’s preschool, with the sanctuary that restored the mystery of the faith tradition for me. But every search leads me back to Wooddale Avenue, to the big church that doesn’t feel so big, the church that accepted me just as I am and where I felt the wonder of God’s acceptance for the first time. It’s where I volunteered for years in the kids department, tattooed and foul-mouthed as I was, and where I got finally baptized after all as an adult. Lola was by my side, not wanting to dip just a toe in the waters of this whole God-thing but to be all in, and baptized too, because she’s experienced Real Love knows we don’t have to try our hardest to receive it. Thank goodness she knows what Nirvana’s been singing and what Jesus knew all along — COME AS YOU ARE.
There is no time like now to practice radical acceptance** of yourself, to let yourself come to Jesus as they say — and if you need some help? You don’t have to dress up or fake it for anyone in order to experience authentic, true love. There is a Love bigger than any of us that accepts us exactly as us. Come as you are.
**Edited: if you’re struggling with self acceptance, I want to share an exercise my therapist gave me to work on this – so grab a journal or a piece of paper. First, take some time to write out what your BEST self is like – holding nothing back, write out who you’d be if Oprah was asking for your bio. Then, write out what your WORST self is like – again, be ruthlessly truthful in your description. What does it look like when the two intersect, the point where they meet? Chances are, if you’re anything like me you straddle the line between best and worst versions of yourself every single day — and that is OKAY. It’s who we are. The sooner we can accept ourselves the better, so we can begin accepting others as they are, too.