When I lived in Springfield, Missouri, a cynical, pessimistic, atheist coworker started Facebook messaging me out of the blue. This guy had good reason to be cynical and pessimistic (for reasons I won't mention here to respect his privacy); he also was a very decent human. He devoted his nights to working in a residential facility for teens, mostly from the foster care system, with behavioral problems, and during the day he helped rehome abused/abandoned animals. His Facebook messages made me EXTREMELY uncomfortable, with their accusations of two-faced Christians, their pointing out of all the suffering and evil in the world, and their BS-calling of certain "scriptural" principles I had always taken for granted and held very dear. "Eli" was brutal in driving home his anger and spiritual frustration in these online conversations. But I couldn't disengage him. He appealed to my pride by telling me repeatedly how much he appreciated that I didn't judge him or speak to him condescendingly. He also appealed to my Christian duty: I assumed Jesus had sent him my way in order to be saved (but, gosh, couldn't He have given me an easier practice case?! This one was hard!!).
Most of the things he pointed out to me were hypocritical Christians, human (and animal) suffering, and injustice (think despot leaders, torture, etc.). He constantly linked me YouTube videos of emo songs and clips from philosophical movies that questioned the seeming indifference of God in a world that suffered so acutely. In one video he had me watch, someone in another country was out in the middle of nowhere when a bird of prey swooped down and started basically eating a child. It tore the child to pieces. Eli couldn't understand how we can live in a world where someone would video the scene instead of stopping it. (Frankly, I can't either.) All of the videos he asked me to watch were that intense. All of the discussions we had were that intense. He often ended up writing in mostly exclamation marks and expletives. (He seemed awfully angry at this God he didn't believe in. Or perhaps he was angry because people insisted on believing in a God who must be absolutely sadistic for allowing the world to exist in the state it does. I'm not sure which.) But in between the emotional outbursts, he had some points with which I couldn't argue, though I tried. He didn't want answers from Scripture, which he didn't believe. He wanted tangible wisdom from someone who claimed to be in touch with the Source of everything good and right. I gave what I could, but ultimately, I found myself inadequate for the challenge. (I prayed for him a lot, though.)
At the same time, my boss at the same job was an older-middle-aged lesbian who had lived and raised a child with her partner for 20-some years. "Maggie," like me, had been raised in an independent Pentecostal holiness tradition. So while Eli was typing me pages of God-rebuttals every day, I was engaging my boss in similar conversations, trying to figure out how her aberration from the truth had come about, and whether it was possible that this sinful-in-a-way-that-is-more-sinful-than-any-other (according to most conservative Christians I knew) lesbian could actually be a decent person when she wasn't busy sacrificing chickens and luring unsuspecting maidens into lives of debauchery and frolicking in the dark hills with demons. It turned out she could.
Maggie eventually shared with me stories of drunken preachers who beat their wives, and other life experiences that moved her away from her beginnings. Not really a huge game-changer for me in terms of what I believed, but I still kept talking with her, and going to farmers markets with her and stuff, because she was my unicorn - a real, live, lesbian I could talk to and observe - and also had become my friend. It unsettled my church-girl sensitivities that I was getting close to people who were so irreconcilable "different" than me...but it felt a little "right," too. Wasn't this what Jesus had done - actually engaged the world rather than hiding away from and shunning it? I felt like I was learning something, though I still didn't know what. At the time, I was probably still intent on bearing the gospel light to their darkened, shriveled souls.
I was, after all, within a year of earning my M.Div. at the Assemblies of God Theological Seminary. I had held minister's credentials with another (even more conservative) Pentecostal denomination for 7 years and worked in its national headquarters for 4. People knew me. People expected great things from me. And not only this, but my relationship with God was very REAL to me. I was not a "nominal" Christian. Jesus was the center and source of my universe, and I wanted NOTHING in life so much as to please Him. I had been completely devoted to Him since I was a teenager, and it was not just something I did on Sundays or when the right people were around. It was my identity and I truly strived to give God all of me at all times.
In the midst of my holiness, I met a friend at seminary who was...let's say "untraditional," too. I don't think Bec would mind me mentioning her here. We drove around Springfield smoking cigars. I admired pictures on my Facebook feed of her karaoke-ing hymns at local bars. I was initially put off, but simultaneously drawn to her form of living for Jesus. She is a very radical person and works with the homeless in Atlanta. She is one of the more interesting people I know. She is also one of the smartest Bible-quoting, exegeting, prophesying, all-inclusive Christians I know. And she cusses a little.
These people and more forced me to deal with the reality that people relate to God differently. Does God relate to them differently, too, or does He love them all the same? If He created them, did He despise their quirks and their personal journeys, or did He appreciate their nuances? How should I relate to them in light of it all?