The Scariest Thing About Becoming a Progressive Christian
A STORY ABOUT FALLING OUT OF THE RAFT IN COLORADO
My last year as a youth pastor was in 2010. That summer we drove a bus load of kids from Houston to Colorado and spent a week backpacking up one of the collegiate peaks. But, as we often did, before we began our hike, we spent a day rafting on the Arkansas river that flows through the Colorado mountains.
We split up into four or five rafts. Our guides explained all the commands and maneuvers and safety precautions. They do an excellent job of scaring the crap out of you. By the end of their “safety speech” you’re basically convinced that if you touch the water you’ll drown.
Fortunately, at that point I had been rafting enough times - and had seen enough people fall in and be safely rescued - that I wasn’t all that nervous.
Plus, I never fell in.
Once the safety speech ended and after a few minutes of paddling through still water, we were off into the rapids.
Our guide was shouting commands from the back of the raft:
“Right back, left forward!”
It was a rush.
At some point when we came to the first set of rapids, we slammed into a wave and, for the first time in years of river rafting, I was tossed out of the boat. One second I was sitting on the yellow tube, and the next I was staring at the sky, bobbing in and out of the water.
Once I got my bearings, I looked for the raft and saw it shooting through the rapids further and further away from me.
My first thought was, “Get to the boat!”
The guide was looking at me and yelling something that I couldn’t quite hear. He had his hand out for me to grab but it was way too far to reach.
I could see some of the teens on the boat panic a little. I felt my blood pressure go up and, for just a second, wondered if I would be okay.
But then, just as quickly as I had fallen in, I had a realization: This is fun!
The water was moving me downstream but I wasn’t forced under. It was deep enough to keep me off the rocks, but not deep enough to drown me. It was like a water park ride. I followed the safety protocol, which was to keep your feet downstream and do your best to get back to the boat.
The boat made it through the rapids and the guide steered it into an eddy on the river bank. Everyone waited for me to swim to them, but I decided to keep riding the river. I smiled and waved as I passed by, and the guide laughed. A few of the teenagers saw me swimming and dove in themselves. Before we hit the next set of rapids, we swam to the raft and retook our seats on the giant yellow tubes.
The river that once seemed so full of death was actually exhilarating.
MAYBE THE RIVER IS GOOD
I’m almost through with Michael Gungor’s book, “This,” which I highly recommend if you’re open to a wide range of expressions about faith. If you prefer more traditional forms, then you might want to stick to what’s familiar.
One of the more meaningful parts of the book for me is in one of the opening chapter in which he compares faith to holding onto a branch over a raging river. For years he was holding on as tight as he could, believing that the branch (God) would save him from the rapids below.
But then one day he had a realization: maybe the branch isn’t God. And maybe the river is good.
So he let go.
IF I LET GO, THEN…
In my experience, I have held onto beliefs about God not because I think they’re true, but because I’m afraid of what will happen if I let them go and risk falling into the river.
What happens if I no longer believe in the faith of my childhood?
What happens if I no longer believe in hell?
What happens if I no longer believe in heaven?
What happens if I no longer believe the Bible is inerrant and infallible?
What happens if I no longer believe in God - or at least the God I’ve always thought I believed in?
The fear of letting go outweighs the doubt we feel about the branch we’re holding onto. Maybe we aren’t entirely sure the branch will hold, but it’s holding for now. And that feels safer than letting go altogether.
The branch - even if we know it’s not stable - is familiar. It’s what we know. Even if deep in our bones we don’t believe the branch is what we say it is, letting go doesn’t feel like an option. Because the branch isn’t really faith or belief or God himself. The branch is actually “Us.” Our tribe.
And we cling to the branch not just to stay safely within the boundaries of “Us,” but also to avoid the river below. The river is the thing we’ve been told our whole lives to fear.
or “Social Justice”
or whatever other Evil you’ve been warned to avoid.
In reality the river is none of those things - at least not the scary version we’ve projected onto them. We fear the river not for what it is, but for what it represents.
If the branch is “Us” then the river is “Them,” and as much as we like to think we’ve outgrown the archaic tribalism of our unsophisticated ancestors, it’s still alive and well.
We cling to the branch because we are more comfortable with “Us” than we are with “Them.”
WHEN THE JEWS TRIED TO KILL SAUL
There’s a story in Acts that hit me in a new way recently.
Paul (formerly called Saul) who wrote at least a few of the New Testament letters - possibly as many as 13 - was once a fundamentalist Jew who killed people that followed Jesus. But one night as he and some friends walked to a town called Damascus where they planned to arrest more of Jesus’s followers, the Christ appeared to Saul and asked:
“Why are you persecuting me?”
After that, Saul was blind for three days until a man named Ananias came and healed him. When Saul was healed, he joined the group of Jesus followers and started preaching a new message about the Kingdom of God. Saul’s conversion story is told multiple times in the New Testament. But the first time it’s told, it is quickly followed by another story.
In the second story, the Jewish people who had been part of Saul/Paul’s band of executioners heard that he converted. So they devised a plot to kill him.
That’s right - kill him!
Isn’t that crazy?!
These weren’t strangers. These were not distant religious officials who didn’t know Saul. They knew him well. They were his friends. They most likely loved him. And now they wanted to kill him.
Few things in life are more dangerous than leaving the tribe.
IT’S NOT GOD WE’RE HOLDING ONTO
Even your firmly held beliefs are not always strong enough to overcome allegiance to your tribe.
Your tribe might believe God is a duckbilled platypus in a Santa hat who plays the harmonica on the back of a four-headed lobster every February 29th at sundown, and it wouldn’t sound that crazy to you if the people you love and trust also believe it.
It’s why the children raised in the Westboro Baptist Church struggled to leave as adults. They knew they didn’t believe what was preached and practiced, but they also could not imagine leaving their people.
I was a pastor in a fundamentalist tradition for a long time that does not use instruments in worship because they aren’t explicitly mentioned in the New Testament. All singing is done a cappella. To people outside this tradition, it’s a little whacko. But for those of us who grew up in it, it’s perfectly normal and, to some, even preferable.
So when I was a pastor and suggested we incorporate instruments into our weekly worship, it was a BIG. FREAKING. DEAL.
One woman asked me, “Where are my parents supposed to worship when they come to town?”
In other words, her parents refused to participate in a worship service with instruments, and therefore she would not approve of it.
I asked her what she thought about the idea, and she looked confused, like she had just answered me. Her parents’ preference was her preference. Never mind that her parents lived hours away and only visited twice a year. If she were to attend a church that used instruments, she would be leaving the tribe.
And tribe trumps belief.
More often than not, we’re afraid to let go of the branch because our friends and family who are still holding on might wish us dead, like the Jews and Saul. If not dead, they’ll at least treat us like outsiders. And sometimes that can be worse.
So a lot of people who know the branch they’re clinging to won’t hold - who believe almost nothing that their church teaches - sit in pews Sunday after Sunday because it’s too scary to leave. Lots of churches have just as many branch-holders as Jesus followers.
MAYBE THE RIVER IS GOOD
But it’s not just the branch that we misunderstand; it’s the river, too.
Sure, it has the power to kill you. But the river also
pumps life into the earth
gives us water to drink
provides power and resources
is a home for fish and tadpoles and beavers and snakes
can be like an amusement park ride for youth pastors who fall in while rafting.
When I fell off the raft and into the water all those years ago, I learned something about the river that I never would have known had I stayed in the raft, which is that the river is actually fun.
It’s strange when we realize the thing we’ve been told to avoid actually has something to teach us.
When it comes to Us vs Them, that’s the Great Misunderstanding. We assume that They have nothing to teach Us. We presume to know Them fully - who They are, what They believe, why They believe it. But when we’re courageous enough to let go of the branch and plunge into the river, we are baptized into a humble vulnerability that sees the world with what Buddhists call a Beginner’s Mind. When we let go of the branch and the false certainty it brings, we are free to ask new, better questions about God and life and Us and Them.
One of the things Jesus did best was elevate the value of all people - especially those outside the acceptable classes of religious practice in his day. Lepers, prostitutes, tax collectors, the unclean…
The Pharisees and teachers of the law warned people about falling into that river. But Jesus showed up and dove right in. What he showed us isn’t that the river people need to be “saved,” but that they are already filled with life if you understand how life works. That’s why he told the Pharisees that the tax collectors and prostitutes are entering the Kingdom ahead of them.
We have much to learn from those we consider “Them:”
Church people could learn about unconditional love from our LGBTQ+ neighbors, many of whom have had to receive and extend it anywhere they can.
We could learn about pure altruistic service toward our neighbor from Humanists who believe caring for each other is right simply because it’s right, not because it will keep us out of hell.
We could learn how to be more sincere and true from persons with Down Syndrome.
We could learn about actual oppression from people of color whose ancestors were brought to this continent on slave ships, some of the ships bearing names like Jesus and Hope and Will.
We could learn about the inner life and the Self God created within us from our Buddhist neighbors who know far better than we do how to go about finding true mental, emotional, and relational healing.
We can learn how to care for the earth by listening to persons of Native descent who have been deeply connected to soil, water, trees, and animals since before our ancestors even knew this continent existed.
When you’re clinging to the branch, you believe the fallacy that your branch is the One True branch. But when you let go and discover the river, you find that Truth exists in lots of forms and places and people and thoughts. Just because it doesn’t come from your branch doesn’t mean it’s not from God, because your branch is not God.
And neither is the river, for that matter.
If you like the branch you’re on and are okay with holding it for a while, great! Experience God as fully as you can from your branch. If at some point you feel the branch start to give way and you worry it might be time to let go, you’ll find God is just as alive in the river as he is on your branch.
And you might even think it’s fun.