This morning I was talking to a friend who, like me, is a Southern ex-pat now living in New England. We were talking about how our experiences in the South have shaped the way we have come to understand Jesus, as well as our feelings when we hear the word “Jesus”, for good and for bad.
I grew up hearing “Jesus” used at times as the start of a sentence condemning me. I was not raised religious, but fundamentalist Christianity was all around me. And it was words said by the Christians who surrounded me that led me to believe that the God they loved hated me for who I was.
Eventually though, despite the negative impressions I had of Christianity, spiritual but not religious was not enough for me. I came out and became a committed Christian in 1994, the year I turned 18. Thankfully, I did so around Southern Christian clergy who were minorities in their beliefs that there was nothing wrong with being gay. They taught me that Jesus wasn’t a name to be feared, but that Jesus was a name that stood for liberation and justice and, above all, love.
I often give thanks for the fact that the first Christian clergyperson I came out to, a United Methodist minister from Georgia, smiled, gave me a hug, and told me “I affirm you”. Then he sent me home with a packet of articles written by Biblical scholars explaining why the Bible does not condemn LGBT people, and why God does indeed love us, and why gay people do not need to change.
I know not many LGBT people of my generation and older had that experience, though. And I know that even LGBT youth today still are met with religious condemnation far too often. And while more churches are going out of their way to not put their condemnation of LGBT people out front, in some ways it’s worse. A growing number of churches in New England are being “planted” by Southern fundamentalist groups to spread their version of the Gospel. They’re generally laid back, jeans and t-shirts type guys (always guys…women can’t preach in their churches) who rock out with guitars and talk about Jesus’ love. But dig a little deeper, and the “love the sinner, hate the sin” words about homosexuality always come out. It’s just like the Christianity I knew growing up, except now it hits you when you least expect it.
This, rightfully, hits a lot of people the wrong way. And so sometimes, especially in well-educated New England circles, a person talking about “Jesus” can be a punchline. I’ve been at dinner parties where Christians are the butt of jokes, and religion the venture of fools, and where the host has looked around nervously and said, “oh, by the way, Emily is a pastor”. And then the conversation stops dead and everyone looks at their chicken.
I’d take offense, if we hadn’t done it to ourselves. True, moderate to progressive Christians aren’t the ones in the news talking negatively about women, and gays, and evolution. But we’re also not the ones in the news talking about women, and gays, and evolution in positive ways, either. We’re mostly quiet, apologetic, and unassuming. And we’ve let the good name of Jesus become associated with a social agenda I do not believe he would have supported.
So, in Lent, especially, I refuse to let the name of Jesus be co-opted. I don’t believe I have any more right to Jesus’ name than anyone else. But I also don’t believe I have any less. And so, in Lent, I try to talk about my relationship with Jesus more. I talk about how Jesus has taught me about grace. How Jesus has transformed my life. How Jesus has taught me how to live, and how to die, and how to not be afraid. And I talk about how Jesus has taught me to leave everything behind, and follow him. This is the story of my walk with Jesus. And in Lent, a time when we follow Jesus’s own walk, I choose to tell it.