Our church joined inter-church sports. Leagues, with uniforms and rosters and brackets and eventual championship tournaments at the end of the season. I don’t know how familiar you are with inter-church sports, but imagine a typical city league. Only with prayer right before the bloodbath began.
We had rivalries as fierce as can be imagined. (And yes, Sunday Morning announcements or the church bulletin would likely include a mention of scores of certain games.) We had fights. Suspensions. Vicious games in which umpires and referees were forced to tell spectators to leave.
All in the spirit of good “Christian fun.” We couldn’t help it if the other team needed to be “informed” once in a while. We were simply admonishing and “encouraging” our fellow Christians to be better people. They needed to learn to lose. Teach ‘em some humility.
Our church concentrated on softball. We had a Class “A” Men’s team, a Class “B” Men’s team, and a Women’s Team. On more than one occasion our “A” Team played the “B” Team for the championship. Our Women’s Team was considered the one to beat during the season (although they could never quite seem to win the Championship.)
In my early Twenties, for some inexplicable reason since I totally stink at softball, I tried out for the Men’s Team. It was immediately evident that I would not be making the “A” Team. By the end of the first practice, it was equally evident I would be spending most (if not all) of my time warming the bench for the “B” Team. Perhaps if my church had enough players for a “C,” “D” and “E” team, I would have a shot at some at-bats! However, they needed a coach for the Women’s Team. Realizing it would be better to be involved than sit like a lump, I volunteered. (Once again proving the adage—“Those who can’t; teach.”)
They didn’t really need a coach. They knew (and played) their positions better than I. They switched around my proposed batting order as they saw fit. All I did was shout and pretend to look like I was in charge of something. Occasionally they took my directions to boost my ego. And we started beating the other teams. Bad. Our league had a skunk rule of ending the game after the 5th inning if you were leading the other team by 15 points. We tried to get to skunk as quickly as possible, and then run up the score.
We yelled at the other teams. Screamed at the horrible calls of the umpires. Chattered, mocked, laughed, cat-called, and had a wonderful time. For us. Because this is what Church Softball was like. It was the way it had always been played. It was the way the other teams played us.
After a typical performance by our crew, mostly me--including the attitude, ridicule, complaints and generally poor display of humanity while trouncing the enemy…er…”opponent,”--some players from the other team approached me.
Players: Can we ask you something?
Me: Sure. [Hey, it was after the game. Now we all put back on our “We-are-in-this-together.” After destroying them, they were no longer “the enemy.”]
Players: Are you a Christian?
If they had struck me in the stomach with a bat at full swing, I could not have received a greater surprise. As I type this, almost 20 years later, I can still picture their faces, the location on their softball diamond, next to the bench, even the direction I was facing. I was stunned.
Me: Of…course….why do you ask? [But I didn’t really have to ask. I knew exactly what they were talking about.]
Players: Because of how you acted out there—we can’t help but wonder. Are you a Christian?
I mumbled some innocuous statement and wandered to my car in complete shock. I got into my car, put my head in my hands, and started to cry. No one was around. No one needed to give me chapter and verse as to what they meant, or what I had been doing incorrectly, or what needed to be done. The point was poignantly and precisely made.
Who cares about some silly score, or a dusty trophy in a forgotten case at the back of the church? Was my God smiling at my win-loss record? Was this what Christianity had come down to? Beating other Baptists to “glorify God?”
At the next practice, we literally had a “Come-to-Jesus” meeting. I apologized for my rotten attitude, and said, “No More. Regardless of wins or losses or whatever, we are going to start loving one another.” And we did. We began to encourage the other team. “Great Hit!” “Good Throw.” If it was close, we agreed to be “Out.” We played everybody where they wanted to play—not just the good players. We no longer had Benchwarmers.
We hugged the other team before, during and after the game. If they were short players, we loaned ‘em a few. We even turned a few games into “scrimmages” where we mixed up the teams, and didn’t bother to keep score! At first everyone met our new-found attitude with a great deal of trepidation. “What tricks are they up to now? Are they mocking us?” But over time, we changed from the team that everyone hated to the team that everyone loved. (If this was a movie, I would tell you that because of our wonderfully new perspective on life, God rewarded us with a championship. Alas, we still lost that year after year.)
I vowed to never, NEVER act in such a way that another person would feel it necessary to ask me, “Are you a Christian?”
Growing up Baptist, one thing you were constantly and pervasively aware of was sin. Smoking was a sin. Smoking was a gateway drug to drinking alcohol. Alcohol inhibited your prohibitions, which led to sex.
PDA (Public display of Affection) was not allowed. Although not technically a sin, it led to dancing, which most certainly, absolutely was a sin. ‘Cause dancing led directly to sex.
Because one only danced to Rock-n-Roll…drums were a sin. I remember going to countless conferences about all the sayings that were imprinting on our brain by virtue of playing records backward revealing the words “The Devil Has Your Soul.” (Or “Shelia has a big mole”--we never could quite tell.) I must embarrassingly admit that these meetings made such a lasting impression on me that even today; every time I hear “Hotel California” the first thought that immediately passes through my mind is that the Church of Satan started in ’69. No joke.
Running in the sanctuary was a sin. Calling an adult by their first name was a sin. Girls wearing a skirt that was shorter than 3 inches below the knee was a sin. Two-piece bathing suits were a sin.
And we tried to see how close we could come to sinning, without quite crossing the line. We measured those skirts. 3 inches—you’re o.k. 2.99 inches—ring the bell, we have a sinner! We listened to “Christian” Rock-n-Roll and clapped our hands. But no devil music and no dancing! We held hands under the table, ‘cause that is not technically “Public” Display of Affection.
We learned this from our adults. It was O.K. to be angry, just until sunset. (Eph. 4:26.) You need to give to the church (Mark 12:42) but not too much! (1 Peter 4:10; 1 Timothy 5:8) We concentrated our study to make sure we knew exactly what “sin” was, so we would not, inadvertently, fall into it. We could come close, but as long as we did not cross that important line, we were fine.
Some of our most cherished questions and study were on the “gray” areas of what sin was and what was not. (Romans 14, 1 Corinthians 6:12-15 & 10:23-33)
After that fateful question, “Are you a Christian?” I realized I blew it. I didn’t get the “sin” thing at all, and for foreseeable future of my life, I was not going to get it correctly. Regardless of who can swim with whom wearing what, I was blowing the most basic, simplest element of Christianity. Love one another. (John 13:34). Love your enemy. (Matt. 5:44; Luke 6:35)
Taking just Luke 6:35, we could drop the entire rest of the Bible, and I would STILL sin. Lend without expecting anything in return? Love your enemy to the point you would die for them? (Let alone help them across the street, care for their sick child, read to them when they can no longer see…)
From that day on, I concentrated on one sin—failing to love other people. Sure, I was convicted of others. I got drunk. I gossiped. I was contentious, proud, angry, spiteful. And I repented, and attempted to grow with God’s help. But the one thing I kept on the fore-front of my mind was that I was going to blow loving one another, and what I could do to prevent it.
As for my faith, I was always puzzled about the statement, “Let go and Let God.” I could never figure out how people actually did that. I used to laughingly, (but accurately) state that after I had tried everything possible, I gave it to God to find a solution. Unless I thought of another resolution, in which case I would inquire, “God, can I have that back for a second? I want to try just one more thing and then you can have it!”
There were times that God seemed to miraculously provide, when I thought there was no hope. A timely phone call from a friend. A fortuitous trip that netted unexpected results. But to be blunt, much of the time I figured God wanted us to work on our own life. Sure, He was helping in some indeterminable way—perhaps providing a boost of patience when I needed it, or a word of encouragement. An appropriate seminar, book or verse at the right moment, due to God’s working quietly “behind the scene.” Yet in the end we had the responsibility of making the right choice.
Some things I did get that God must have intervened. I was uncertain how I could handle my mother’s death, yet God seemed to sustain me. My inability to find substantial income for a period of time, yet God apparently provided. The discovery of a woman who matched EXACTLY what I need (and didn’t even know I needed!). Surely God must have been intimately involved in that.
However, I had bank accounts. I worried. I fretted. I failed in letting God “do his thing” and tried to manage on my own. I failed to love other people like I should have. Despite my vow, I am certain that someone must have seen some act I had done and thought, “Is he a Christian?”
One of the most common things to hear as a deconvert is “You were not a true Christian.” As to the technical requirements of confessing Jesus and believing He was raised from the dead (Rom. 10:9) I would argue vociferously with a person who makes that claim. Whether they believe me or not; I was absolutely as true a Christian as one could find.
As to the actual living out a Christian life? Even as a Christian, as much as it would pain me, and bring back a vivid image of a softball diamond on a sunny evening, I would sigh and have to agree; I was not a true Christian. I worried. Matt. 6:25-28. I owned cars, houses, stocks and bank accounts. Luke 12:16-31. I complained. Philippians 2:14. I did not tame my tongue. James 3:4-6. I was proud. James 4:6. And most reprehensibly, the one thing I worked on, the one thing I concentrated on, I still failed by not loving others. I even failed at loving my own wife—the one person it should have been easiest to love! Ephesians 5:25.
So what does this have to do with deconversion? Because we are a fact-laden society, we often focus on names, dates and specific events. We can tend to recount our own history with date of birth, name of our first-grade teacher, and so on. Yet, as we all know, that is not the entire picture. We are not the sum of events.
As a Christian, I was concentrating on…well…being a Christian. I wasn’t studying and re-studying theological minutia. I was not joining archeological digs in the Sinai Peninsula to bolster the story of Exodus. I was not pouring over manuscripts in the basements of university Libraries—I was working on one small, minor point. Until I learned how to love others, I figured the rest could probably wait.
Many deconversion stories understandably focus on what philosophical doctrine, or Biblical difficulty caused the person to re-think. Mine will too. Eventually. *grin* Or others indicate some emotional event that brought a new perspective on the realities of their belief.
But for a moment, I want to pause and say that for me, I was not looking for some out. I was not looking for some deep philosophical support for my Christianity and went looking in the wrong bars. My deconversion story has to include a Christianity that was more than just a set of facts, figures and theologically “correct” dogma. The vast majority of Christianity, to me, was doing one thing right.
So, if you are reading this anxiously looking for what I did not get “correct” about Christianity—look no further. Regrettably, both then and now, I would have to concede I did not get “Love one another” correct.