Becoming a Liberal Christian Part II: Beach Evangelism and Rob Bell

Humility

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My anorexia and faith had long been intertwined, but as time went on, there was no choice for me but to fall on my knees… in a more palpable way than saying the “Jesus prayer” years earlier. After nearly 5 years of suffering from anorexia, my life had crumbled before me. A vacant, hollow shell was getting good grades and applying for college, and I ended up in residential treatment for my eating disorder and OCD shortly after graduation.

My first two days at treatment were excruciating. Without my eating disorder behaviors, I felt like I was being stripped down to nothing. Who was I? Where would I turn? The existential angst that had always plagued me came at me with a vengeance. I felt like I was internally bleeding, and I needed something– a tourniquet.

In my soul searching, I stumbled across Matthew 11:28-30, “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.” 

I wept. 

I imagined Jesus saying, “Are you downcast and hopeless? I will give you hope. Are you exhausted and riddled with addiction? I will give you peace.”

I craved the Jesus of Matthew 11:28-30. I imagined snuggling into God’s arms of love, grace, forgiveness, and rest. This was no longer the distant, aloof God of my childhood. This was a bruised, human God, with outstretched hands, giving me a chance at life… which I would never get with my eating disorder.

For the first time ever, it felt like my heart had found its home.

When I think back on this summer, I think of sweet attunement with the Lord and a huge amount of growth. I was hungry (pun partially intended) for any Christian book I could get my hands on– the Bible, devotionals, Christian inspirational books. An angel from a local Wisconsin church would transport me and some other patients to church weekly. At church, we would watch Nooma videos, Rob Bell’s mini-sermon videos that were so popular at the time. I met with the hospital chaplain often, and I asked her why God gave me an eating disorder. She replied that my sickness was akin to her own hypoglycemia. The rural Wisconsin church and this chaplain showed me grace and compassion that stayed with me.

I left treatment with a new mandate, not a zealous, argumentative quest, but a desire to live for God– whatever that meant. I was never going to be the same.

Paradigm Shift

At the beginning of college, my mind’s focus was no longer on the college experience of football, drinking, and joining a sorority: I wanted to honor God in every way, and that started with church. I got involved in a fairly conservative evangelical church, and by the end of my freshman year, I was on a certain conservative evangelical trajectory.

On a church level, this trajectory encompassed quiet times (i.e. extended prayer times) and beach evangelism– oh yes, I did beach evangelism. I felt dirty approaching random people on the street simultaneously trying to be friendly while attempting to convert them, but I did it. That was what my church was telling me to do. 

My first boyfriend and I even “courted” instead of dated, in the style of the once-popular I Kissed Dating Goodbye, the implications of which included saving kissing for marriage. (Note: Don’t read that book. Don’t kiss dating goodbye).

And yet… more and more, there were reverberations in my mind that something was amiss. One of the people that catapulted my paradigm shift was Rob Bell (the picture below was taken of Rob and I at one of his tours).

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First it started with watching his Nooma videos while at treatment, and then I religiously started following his church’s podcast. I read Rob’s books and even handled marketing for his Sex God tour. Rob was the “spiritual mentor” who I met all of two times but changed the way I saw God. He was also perhaps my transitional object, my bridge to an adult worldview. Rob was the first one I heard say, over and over in sermons, “God is the God of the oppressed.” He talked about Jesus’ Third Way, one that does not incorporate violence or keeping the status quo. Rob was authentic and mobilized his listeners to go out and be the hands and feet of Jesus on Earth. He preached social justice and Jesus’ subversive message. Rob talked about difficult subjects, like Leviticus and violence in the Old Testament.

The summer after my freshman year of college, I read the book The Irresistable Revolution by Shane Claiborne. A Mennonite and pacifist, Claiborne clinched my belief that God is the God of the hurting, vulnerable, and oppressed. In his book, Claiborne talks about going to Iraq to sit with Iraqi civilians following America’s Iraq invasion. Claiborne wrote,

“We must mourn the lives of the soldiers. But with the same passion and outrage, we must mourn the lives of every Iraqi who is lost. They are just as precious, no more, no less. In our rebirth, every life lost in Iraq is just as tragic as a life lost in New York or D.C. And the lives of the thirty thousand children who die of starvation each day is like six September 11ths every single day, a silent tsunami that happens every week.”

Reading this book, it was clear that I was having a faith identity crisis. I started to wonder if my version of Christianity was inclusive of the fact that EVERY life is precious, even the lives of our enemies. In the upside-down Kingdom of God, God was calling the church to something so different than beach evangelism and Bible thumping. He was calling the church to be with the sick and hurting; to provide holistic care that involved theology but also catering to physical needs; to go to the ends of the earth, not just to save souls but to turn the entire world upside down.

Did I know what that looked like? Absolutely not. On the contrary, I barely knew anyone of different socioeconomic classes, races, or sexual orientations. I didn’t know what God was calling me to do.

One thing I did know is that I was no longer at “home” with traditional conservative evangelicalism. I couldn’t live in an insulated church that didn’t have room for these ideas. At the same time, I wasn’t ready to throw the baby out with the bathwater. I still attended evangelical churches, and I even voted for John McCain in 2008.

As I inched nearer to college graduation, I wondered about my vocation. I switched professionals tracks from psychology, my first love, to ministry. My thought process was this: I loved theology. I loved helping people. How best serve God besides go into full-time ministry? Here’s where my “crazy liberal ideas” started: I wanted to be a minister or pastor. Not just a youth director or secretary, as most conservative evangelical churches utilize women. I wanted to be a legit, ordained minister. At my Christian college, I was on the “pre-seminary” track because my school affirmed women going into ministry (go Calvin!). I even took a summer internship at a church to “discern my calling” (i.e. think about whether or not to go to seminary).

I was learning a lot, but I was torn about grad school. At my summer internship, I had a revelation: there is much value in psychology for the church. I saw a church riddled with wounds and mental health issues, and here I was with a gift to understand and help people with these issues.

At school, I learned in psychology and theology classes that all that is good is God’s. I believe at the core of my being that psychology is good and useful. It is much needed in the church, and I love it. If God is involved in the restoration of ALL things, that means I could both be devoted to God’s work AND choose a full-time profession besides ministry. In the end, I decided to graduate school in psychology. In full disclosure, I went to Fuller Seminary partly because they have a clinical psychology program that incorporates theology classes and partly because that is Rob Bell’s alma mater.

I went to Fuller with no expectations but also searching for something . I wanted a broader knowledge of psychology and theology, but also a deeper relationship with an infinitely beautiful God whose love has no bounds.

In my nomadic way, I picked up and moved to southern California, with no idea what I was in for.

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