taking the words of Jesus seriously

A few years ago I walked out of the church I had attended and served at for many years. I didn’t really have a choice. I followed Jesus out of the church doors and into the wilderness.

At a certain point I had looked around and realized, “Many of these people that seemingly center their lives around Jesus and lift their hands on Sunday, and with whom I had felt at one in so many ways for so long, would vote to leave a collective that might one day affirm me if I were gay, would be silent about my abuse and murder if I were Black, and would question my ability and authority to lead if I were female.”

And now I know that many would also be silent about, or even excuse, my encagement were I a 5-year-old immigrant.

I had wanted to belong so badly. I had even sold myself out to a degree in order to gain acceptance. And I had won it: conditional acceptance not based on my authentic self. But I could no longer deny the fact that there was a gay, Black, 5-year-old female immigrant living inside of me, and she didn’t belong here. In fact, it was she that I had sold out in order to gain acceptance.

The more I followed Jesus in the ways he was calling me, the truer I was to what God was putting in my heart and on my lips, the broader my circles of concern became, the more openly affirming I became, the more prophetic and justice-oriented my sermons became, the more of a “special consideration” I became, the more “shaping and molding” I needed. In other words, I had failed to assimilate, to conform.

I no longer belonged.

During our time in the wilderness, my family and I went to the Wild Goose Festival where we listened to Jen Hatmaker tell her story and share her pain. We found that there were many similarities between her experience and ours, her family and ours, although what they went through was on a much larger scale.

I can’t speak for Jen, but this experience for me has been an Exodus. My family and I were in the desert for a long time. But I took heart in the words of Bob Marley:

Men and people will fight you down when you see God’s light. Let me tell you, if you’re not wrong everything is alright. So we’re gonna walk through the roads of Creation. We are the generation who trods through great tribulation. Exodus, movement of God’s people….We’re leaving Babylon, Going to our Father’s Land…God come to break downpression, rule equality, wipe away transgressions, and set the captives free.

Our walking away was an exodus. It was God initiated, God ordained, and a movement toward health, healing, and wholeness. But it was excruciatingly painful.

Hatmaker added to our healing by giving us language for our experience. She named it when she said, “The price is belonging.” This was powerful, because the first step in healing is naming what needs to be named. And, naming what needs to be named can be very empowering.

It was time to shake the dust off and move on.

Carl Jung used the term neurosis to describe a person’s emotional and mental state when there is a mismatch between one’s inner and outer worlds. For some of us, that is all we have ever known. To leave the people and places that have formed our identity is traumatic. But it is sometimes a necessary trauma. We had been neurotic the way animals at the zoo are neurotic. We needed to leave the zoo and go into the wild. But like the early Israelites, we longed for the known all the way to the Promised Land where our identities changed in ways we could have only imagined.

Jen Hatmaker had nailed it. “The price is belonging.” When we differentiate, the price is usually belonging to one’s family, community, and the known. We suffer the loss of the structures that had provided meaning, purpose, and identity. Not to mention the attachment disruptions we experience. It very much mirrors the experience of those that “come out of the closet,” as it is absolutely a form of coming out.

It is brutal. Parts of you die. Everything feels different. But as Jung says, “There is no coming to consciousness without pain.” We left the zoo. But we also left the garden. We had new information. We had seen behind the curtain. Everything was different.

A few months ago, I was speaking about matters of race, privilege, and injustice at a college in Mississippi. During the Q&A, a young Black man asked me point blank, “Why don’t more white Christians speak the way you do?”

My answer was: “In certain religious circles, once you speak up, you no longer belong to the collective. Most white Christians in those circles that do have something on their hearts won’t dare speak it, because they know the price and find that it is too high. The price is belonging. Having said that, it’s still a cop out.”

For me, the price was belonging. But I found that the less I belonged to the collective, the more I belonged to Jesus. And I found myself humming along:

Lord, I’ve been told to be ashamed
Lord, I’ve been told I don’t measure up
Lord, I’ve been told I’m not good enough
But You’re here with me
And I reach out and You find me in the dust
You say no amount of untruths can separate us
I’m laying down all my religion
I will rejoice in the simple gospel
I will rejoice in You, Lord

See, the gospel doesn’t need a home. The gospel is at home in the universe. And the gospel is at home in us.

As Jesus says, the kingdom is inside each of us and at hand…in us and in the space between us.

But I have had to learn a hard truth the hard way. And that truth is this: “When you are called to a new somewhere, you are also called out of the old somewhere. To be called into a place is to be called out of a place. To be called to a people is to be called from a people.”

That most likely will mean some time in a liminal space, the wilderness, the desert. But that is ok. Pain is the proof of love.

I had been so angry for so long, though always knowing that the anger was just a symptom of heartbreak, devastation, grief, and loss. And being misunderstood. As Maya Angelou says: “There is no greater agony than bearing an untold story inside you.”

Not long after Wild Goose, I was on a video conference with some people from the Convergence Leadership Project, and Brian McLaren exhorted us to be loving, gentle, and patient with those that are on the fence in their own deconstruction and might reject us in order to stick with the collective.

He reminded us that they may be thinking things like, “Where will I go on Thanksgiving?” “How tense will Christmas be for me and my family?” Again, the price is belonging. A member of the group thanked him and explained how they had lived in that painful place for a long time before making a radical change. It’s important to not assume where those around us are internally. It may be our job to blaze a trail, model liberation, normalize risk, and inspire change.

I believe that this leads us to “the call of the real” that Howard Thurman spoke of. There are scars aplenty for those of us that follow the call of the real. But once the call is chosen, we are no longer victims on this trail. We are survivors. Because the price of belonging is often our authenticity. And what would it profit us to gain acceptance but lose our souls?

This was a necessary Exodus. And as Hatmaker said: “You find that the people you originally wanted to be with anyway are the ones that you find.”

For me, this has been through Red Letter Christians, The Wild Goose Festival, and The Evolving Faith Conference. There are spaces for us out there. There is community for us out there. We just have to follow Spirit.

In Christ, loneliness becomes solitude. Grief becomes wisdom. Fear becomes trust. Sometimes, the desert is where we bond the deepest with the Divine. It is in this silence that we can hear the still, small voice. Ultimately, I have not been defined by the losses I have suffered. Ultimately, I have been defined by the desert because that is where I met Jesus in a whole new way. And I wouldn’t change it for anything.

As my friend Shane Claiborne says, “There is a new world being built in the shell of the old one.” Jean-Shinoda Bolen says it like this: “Spend more time and energy building the new than fighting the old.” Richard Rohr says it this way: “The best critique of the bad is the practice of the better.”

Many of us are deconstructing. And we are not without our faults. We are often hyper critical and hyper vigilant. But that’s what trauma does to a people, right? Because not belonging to the tribe, the pride, the pack is about the most terrifying thing that can happen to a living creature. This is especially true for humans as we are wired for community. There is safety in numbers. Losing the safety of the tribe, pack, or pride makes us very vulnerable. Much terror accompanies the loss of our status as a part of the collective.

Not belonging, or specifically, making changes based on the reality that one already does not belong and is simply “passing,” is emotionally, relationally, cognitively, and spiritually devastating. If you are feeling this way, I want you to know that you are not alone. There are literally thousands of us out there. And we are finding one another. Deep calls out to deep.

When our theologies teach salvation over transformation, a fear-based individual is the result. In a collective of fear-based individuals, salvation is equated with belonging and conformity is the price of belonging. When salvation as belonging reigns, what constitutes transformation of the individual is too narrowly defined.

The necessary Exodus is a developmental victory in that we continue to bloom into who God would have us be. For many of us, deconstruction is a necessary step in reclaiming our birthright. Not everyone will understand. In fact, most want. You can’t take everyone with you. For some of us, this is the narrow way.

For many of us, this necessary Exodus was not initially chosen. But, in retrospect, we will be able to echo the sentiment of Maya Angelou, “Wouldn’t take nothing for my journey now.”

As I write this, I’m heading to the Evolving Faith Conference to offer counseling sessions to attendees that experience acute emotional pain or just need to process what comes up for them during the sessions and workshops. All the right conversations happen at Evolving Faith and, therefore, along with experiencing our shared resonance with one another, we are also forced to acknowledge our shared pain, grief, and trauma.

The continued work is, as Shane says, “to build a new world in the shell of the old one.” And I have found that, when doing this, one enters a flow in which we scattered stars become constellations. Our circles of concern overlap. We find one another.

This walk of faith might be a death of sorts. We may have left home. But we find that our definition of home expands.

We have come to know that home is not always where the heart is.
But we can also come to find that: The Heart Is Where Home Is.
We come home to our true selves. And that is a home that never leaves us.
That is a home we can always return to.

Friends, please remember this and take heart:

Though we may sometimes feel lonely, we are anything but alone. AMEN.

About The Author


Tony Caldwell is a psychoanalytic psychotherapist in private practice and Professor of Social Work at the University of Mississippi. He is a member of the Memphis-Atlanta Jungian Seminar and the Inter-Regional Society of Jungian Analysts. As a public speaker, human rights activist, project facilitator, town hall moderator, and workshop leader; Tony has partnered with The Human Rights Campaign, the W.W. Kellogg Foundation, The William Winter Institute For Racial Reconciliation, The Mississippi Racial Equity Community of Practice, the Sara Isom Center For Women and Gender Studies, the Southern Poverty Law Center, the Radical South Conference, The Levi Strauss Co., and the Toyota Corporation. Tony and his colleague, Dr. Jandel Crutchfield, have enjoyed success in their grassroots Together Projects promoting interracial and interfaith dialogue around issues of intersectionality, privilege, police violence, and systemic racism across the state of Mississippi. Tony has presented at Wild Goose Festival, the Haden Institute, and at various other conferences, congregations, and universities. He is currently leading The Underground Church, a reconciling faith community, in Oxford, Ms. As well as conducting research linking health outcomes in the Mississippi Delta, which are 50th in the nation, to transgenerational trauma related to slavery, segregation, poverty, and marginalization, and developing interventions to address these issues. Tony loves writing about the intersection of theology, depth psychology, and social justice.

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