taking the words of Jesus seriously

I had hoped, based on the “unprecedented” nature of 2020, that a sweeping majority would deem the pain we’ve suffered together (with Donald Trump as president) great enough to vote beyond party loyalties. To vote for change. But, election night, my naivety slapped me in the face yet again, as nearly half of the U.S. voted to remain the same. The ballot count remained so close, in fact, that it took 5 days to declare a winner!

Don’t get me wrong, I am telling myself to be relieved at the direction we’re headed. I am glad at the prospect of a 46th president, and the first Black, South Asian, and female VP. I am encouraged at the turn out of new voters. I am hopeful at the number of suburbanites who flipped their 2016 Trump votes to Biden, some with whom I’ve shared years-long, laborious conversations. I am telling myself it was my fault not to temper my expectations; that change at the scale I was imagining takes time. And yet, this feeling of disappointment is a hard one to shake. Especially when I look at that pesky 81% statistic of white evangelicals who voted for Trump. Again.

As someone once said, “Nothing changes until the pain of remaining the same is perceived as greater than the pain of change.”

I keep coming back to that idea. It’s precisely why I left the evangelical church. The pain of remaining the same was eating me alive. I needed space to be angry, tell the truth, and grieve — space my church could, but would not, offer. My heart was being lit with a fiery revival, but it was an unwelcome disturbance to the status quo. Either I would let it be snuffed out in the church, or I would give it oxygen to breathe–outside.

So the revival in me walked out.

I have come to understand that this is often the way it works. It’s the John the Baptist in-the-wilderness effect. Revival, awakening, repentance (all those things Christians say they want) require pain, truth, grief, deconstruction, and–most unwelcome and scary of all–change.

How often does revival have to walk out of church in order to survive? How many awakened souls will have to leave the institution before the pain of staying the same is perceived as greater than the pain of change? Is there some way to expedite the process?

These questions (and more) play on a loop in my mind, and I recall some of Jesus’ haunting parables. Allegories, metaphors, symbols, which – like any prophetic imagining – carry the potential for epiphany. The potential for opening eyes and ears. 

Here’s one I often contemplate:

I get to the “pearly gates” and Jesus asks me if I think one of my gay friends belongs there too. I say, “I’m so glad you asked, Jesus. Yes, he’s amazing! Loving, self-sacrificing, patient, kind. He most definitely belongs here!

But then, the scene flips before my eyes and I realize that Jesus wasn’t addressing me at all, nor is he interested in my judgment. It’s my friend who is standing before Jesus, and Jesus is asking him about me. Asking if, by his experience of me, I belong in “the Kingdom.” Oh. 

Then I watch this friend walk into a glorious sunset and life beyond, as Jesus moves on to interview my atheist friends. My Black friends. And down through a long line of people, all who have experienced abuse at the hands of the so-called “body of Christ.” The body I claimed to represent. But did I? I’m no longer so sure . . .

READ: A New Chapter in the American Experiment

Every time I think of this scenario playing out, it wrecks me. 

I rewind again and again to see the faces of all those people (who have been marginalized and oppressed by those claiming Christianity) in line — Native Americans, the incarcerated in my community, those experiencing homelessness, my elderly neighbors. And Jesus, with his back to me, giving hugs, shaking hands, laughing at inside jokes, taking his time, making his point. 

Okay, I get it Jesus. This was not an Ebenezer Scrooge flash-forward to my final judgment. It was a lesson in love. 

Yes, this scene is “extra-biblical,” born of my imagination — but maybe it can help put some things in perspective. Particularly, how unfathomable it is that the church of America has yet to be wrecked by the pain we’ve caused, and fall on our knees in repentance. Has yet to tear our clothes, sit in ash, and cry out “Lord, have mercy on us, sinners.” 

The only thing I can figure, is that the pain hasn’t become personal enough yet. Your child hasn’t “come out” as gay, yet. You haven’t seen your Black co-worker suffer discrimination in real time, yet. You haven’t walked with your neighbor through years of immigration paperwork and thousands of dollars, only to see them hit a dead end, yet. You haven’t watched your sister work her overtime at a minimum wage second job still barely able to scrape by, yet. You haven’t helped a loved one navigate the broken unemployment system, only to be rejected for no good reason, yet. You haven’t had a parent in the hospital with COVID-19, because someone couldn’t be bothered to wear a mask, yet.

Privilege is to keep a distance; not to have to care. But, love is to feel someone else’s pain as if it is your own. And it’s only when someone else’s pain becomes personal to you (because you love them) that change is perceived as necessary. 

So, here’s my one idea: let someone else’s pain become personal. Love your neighbor as you love yourself. And, if that’s too hard at first, start with the haunting parables. Let them reorient you to your role in the Kingdom. Let them open your eyes and ears; let them awaken your heart. 

Because Jesus may one day ask the people you once referred to as “those people” about their experience of you. What do you think they’ll say? 

About The Author

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Felicia Melian is a seminary grad, ordained minister, and ex-church planter turned writer, researcher, and aspiring public theologian. She specializes in interrogating the invisible, stagnant, or downright harmful ideas that exist among white evangelicals; especially those that stand in the way of justice. Felicia resides with her husband, Gabe, in Tampa, Florida.

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