The Gospel and a Vodka Bottle: My Liberation From Bad Theology
As I turned over the empty vodka bottle in my hand, I nervously wondered why these three guys were talking to me. I had come down by the river specifically to be by myself and get my mind off my troubles, and now I was sitting on the ground looking up at three college-aged guys wondering what was next. What did they want from me?
"Can we pray for you?"
Before I push forward in this story, allow me to explain what I was doing there on the ground by the river with a vodka bottle in my hand.
I choose to start my story at this particular point because it was a funny situation to find myself in, especially for a guy who doesn't drink and has only had alcohol once in his entire life (tastes nasty).
It was a Sunday afternoon, and I was celebrating Sabbath the way God intended it to be celebrated: with rest and relaxation. I had been having a rough week, so I decided to get away from it all by going down to the river to hammock and read.
The day was sunny and warm, and the books were How To Be Here by Rob Bell and The Sin of Certainty by Peter Enns. Both of these authors are quite controversial within the evangelical Christianity scene (for those new to the blog, that's the scene I've grown up in my entire life). Why does what I was reading matter? Perhaps you'll make the connection here in a minute.
As I was devouring the words on the page, I happened to glance down on the ground nearby where I was hammocking. Something shiny was poking out of the dirt, so I got up to investigate.
The thing poking up out of the dirt turned out to be a piece of glass, so I decided to dig it up just for fun. For those of you who don't know me personally, I'm a very imaginative person, so I am often on the lookout for interesting objects that people have dropped or lost wherever I go. Once I found a single playing card on the sidewalk in downtown Asheville. It was fun thinking about where the other 51 cards had gone off to.
As I scraped the dry earth out from around the piece of glass, I realized it was more than just a piece of glass; it was an empty Vodka bottle!
I kept digging until I could pull it free. The bottle was actually trapped under a system of roots, so it took quite a bit of effort to liberate it.
Right as I was picking the unearthed bottle up from it's resting place, a group of three college aged guys walked over to me. They had been walking on the path nearby where I was hammocking and noticed me digging.
"What did you find?"
I showed them the bottle, and they started making some comments about me digging in the dirt. I couldn't tell if they were being friendly or making fun of me.
After a few awkward exchanges, they said those words that I introduced this piece with:
"Can we pray for you?"
Now, if I were any ordinary Joe, I probably would've been a little weirded out by this question. After all, how many people just go around in public walking up to random strangers to pray for them?
But I am no ordinary Joe. I'm a Christian, and I had seen plenty of street-walking prayer warriors in my day. Heck, I had even done similar things in the past myself!
I was flattered by their kind gesture and explained that they could pray for me regarding a situation at work.
Keep in mind, at this point they still don't know that I'm a Christian.
We all bowed our heads and one of the three guys prayed out loud. After the prayer was over, they asked me what my name was and began to inquire about the situation I was in at work.
"I actually work at a church," I said.
"Oh really! So are you a Christian?"
"Where do you work?"
"I'd rather not say."
"What's your job at church?"
"I'm a graphic designer. I do all of the print material, promotional content, advertising, marketing... That sort of thing."
"That's really cool! So what's wrong at work?"
"I'm just wrestling through some theological issues and it's a little hard when you're on staff at a church. There's a lot of pressure."
At this, one of the three guys asked if I would consider myself more of a cultural Christian or a biblical Christian. I laughed a little inside because I knew exactly what they were doing. They were basically saying, "are you a real Christian or a fake one?" A lovely euphemism if I ever heard one.
Our conversation progressed, and they learned that I was fairly progressive in my theological beliefs. I could sense the tension was building. They clearly had more conservative opinions about God and the Bible.
"Can we tell you a little about what we believe?" One of them said as he pulled out a 3x5 card from his pocket.
"Sure, go right ahead," I said, intrigued by where this would lead.
Side note: just a few weeks ago I scared off a group of three Mormons who knocked on my door. They didn't expect to engage with someone who knew the Bible so well, and I think the same can be said about these three college aged Christians.
Also, why is it always three men? Who knows.
To make a long story short, these three Christians "witnessed" to me and presented to me their version of the Gospel. I say "their version" because it was distinctly different from the Gospel I believe in. And I let them know that in many terms.
Do you know what "Gospel" means? It means Good News. When Christians preach "the Gospel", they're supposed to be preaching the Good News of Jesus Christ. It's a lot more complicated than that, but this basic understanding of it will work for those unfamiliar with the topic.
We probably talked for almost an hour, and they didn't tell me a single thing I hadn't already heard before. In fact, I knew exactly what they were going to say before they even said it. The Gospel they presented to me was the exact same one that I got in the 3rd grade at Vacation Bible School.
Little did they know, that Gospel was not good news to me anymore. Those three college students picked a doozy of a person to walk up to on this fine Sunday afternoon. Little did they know I had just spent the last 4 years of my life trying to dig my way out of a version of the Gospel that left me plagued with fear, anxiety, and despair.
They had no idea that the 23-year-old they were talking to had once spent countless nights in tears and existential dread because he thought he might die and go to hell.
Sound like "Good News" to you? Yeah, I didn't think so.
They had no way of knowing the number of panic attacks I have suffered through in my life, all in the name of the Gospel they were now presenting to me.
One of the ways I've coped over the years is by saying the following phrase:
"If it's not good news, then it's not the Gospel."
When someone tells me that God is a god of wrath who demands my fear, I remind myself that this concept is not Good News. And so, in the name of my Lord Jesus Christ, I reject it.
I reject it and say "praise be that this is not so. Amen."
It hasn't always been this easy though. In fact, it's only been the last year or so that I've finally started to breath again. Like that empty Vodka bottle that I found stuck in the roots and the dry dust by the river, God found me in the midst of Bad News and excavated me from it.
He has been slowly uncovering the layers of fear and bad theology that have sucked the life out of me for so long. He is in the process of dislodging me from the system of roots that have been choking me since I was a young boy.
God is pulling me up from the dry ground in many ways, and I've been as empty as that old Vodka bottle at times... spent and used in the midst of bad news.
Thank goodness I was empty though because God poured out his life and spirit into me.
He is in the process of replacing the bad news with the good news. He is taking my pain and my bad memories and is making something good and new within me. He is leading me to help the people who have been burnt by the church. He is leading me to help the people who can't quite get on board with this whole God thing because of what's happened to them.
He is leading me to help dig up the other empty Vodka bottles so that he can fill them with his new life.
I am so certain of this fact that even three college students insinuating that I'm a fake Christian can't cause me to doubt myself.
On the off chance that one of those three guys happens to read this post, I just want to emphasize my love for them. Sure, they were three random strangers who I'll probably never see again, but I love them nonetheless.
They may be teaching the same theology that left me wrecked and out to dry, but I know by God's grace I can love even someone that might seem like my enemy.
That's what Jesus would do.
And that's GOOD news if I ever heard it.
I want to thank my parents for not feeding me any of the bad theology that I inadvertently was handed in the church. In fact, if they had have been the model "Christian parents" that the church demanded, I probably would have had a lot more junk to sort through.
When I refer to the "church", I'm not referencing one specific church. I'm referring to the branch of Christianity that I grew up in. Also, I learned many many good things from the church as well. In fact, many of those good things make up the core of my beliefs to this day. Don't believe the lie that the church is bad. Nothing is perfect, but that doesn't mean good can't come from it.
Yes, I know, enough already! I just want to say a huge thanks to the staff of the church I'm currently at. They have given me lots of grace and love as I move forward on my journey, and they have given me hope for the evangelical community. I know without a doubt (and that's saying something coming from me!) that God is using my time here for good in my life, and I have learned much from them. I hope my presence has done the same to them.
Grace, peace, and love.