Becoming a Fundamentalist

Isaiah 58:9-14/Luke 13:10-16

This week, I started writing what will be my 14th book. That impresses some people, but it just means that I have lots of opinions and like to share them. The working title is Confessions of a Pious Agnostic: A Memoir of Recovering from Fundamentalism.

The trouble is, because it is a memoir, I don’t know how it turns out, which pretty much describes the state we all are in. We barely know who we are, let alone who we are becoming.

The great good news is that we may have more control over who we become than we did over who we are. This writing project is forcing me to reflect on my growing up as a small-town, Southern fundamentalist, in a context in which that was, and to some extent still is, normative. We didn’t consider ourselves fundamentalists; we simply thought we were committed Christians. There was no point of comparison.

Of course, education, travel, and being gay challenged and changed me. I don’t know what changed you. It is a safe bet, however, that you aren’t who you used to be, but do you have any idea who you want to become?

When we were kids, we were asked what we wanted to do when we grew up. They should’ve asked who we wanted to be. Your parents, teachers, and culture of origin may have shaped who you are, but we are adults now, and we get to choose who we will become.

That can be a scary thought because it makes you the one responsible for you. Oh yes, God’s Spirit is working to help you become whole and holy, but God only works cooperatively.

One of the tragedies of fundamentalism, whether Christian, Islamic, or Jewish, is it makes one so certain so there is no sense that God’s transformative work is needed. When you know the all the answers, what’s left to learn? Fundamentalists want to “fix” others so they believe, behave, and vote like them.

I am grateful for my deliverance from that brand of fundamentalism, but I really do miss the security of certainty, the passion of convictions, and the confidence of knowing God’s will.

Living with questions, ambiguity, and uncertainty isn’t easy, but that is why we call this journey FAITH: The substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen. I admit that, with so much uncertainty and chaos, it would be nice to come here on Sunday nights and get a shot of confidence, a boost of clarity, a kick of direction.

Unfortunately, we are not that kind of church, but perhaps we still can get some of the good that comes from being a fundamentalist, without all the baggage.

The church I pastored in Dallas kept growing and growing. I didn’t know what I was doing, and most of the larger churches were too fundamentalist to help us. Fortunately, I made a connection with Robert Schuller at the Crystal Cathedral in Garden Grove, California.

I attended a conference there every year. They invited the pastors of some of the largest churches in the world to speak. Of all the people I heard, the most inspirational was Bill Wilson. He built one of the largest Sunday schools in America in Bushwick, back when that neighborhood was dangerous and gang-ridden. They used dozens of buses to pick up kids. They often fed them the only hot meal they received each week outside of school. Hundreds of volunteers tried to teach these often abused and neglected children how deeply they are loved by God.

Today, Metro World Child serves thousands of poor children all over the world feeding them and telling them of God’s love. Bill Wilson tries to provide a taste of love that these children might not find in their homes.

He spoke one day about a 12-year-old boy. The kid’s mother was seldom home and provided only the barest of nurturing. Then, one day, she took the boy out for a walk. They walked through a drainage ditch, and, when they came to the culvert, she told the boy to sit there and wait while she ran an errand.

The little boy sat there for three days, but his mother never returned. A stranger happened along who took him in, and fed him, and loved him. Bill Wilson became a fundamentalist about love because he was that 12-year-old boy whose life was saved by the love of a stranger.

Jesus, too, was a fundamentalist about love. For him, the law of love took precedence over the Sabbath law or any other law. Love is a law that Jesus believed should never be violated.

That doesn’t sound like a radical idea because, today, love has become an ambiguously positive feeling that we are supposed to have for one another.

“Yeah, yeah, yeah, we’re supposed to love one another, of course.”

The passage from Isaiah is very specific, however, about how fundamentalists of love must behave. The prophet calls us to act with compassion because compassion is how love acts. We are to be the people to repair the breach between humanity and God.

Notice what that meant in Jesus’ life. To love a stranger who was bent over by life was to risk rejection and condemnation. For Jesus to love meant making others so angry they wanted to destroy him. He violated the rules of their fundamentalism because he was a fundamentalist about only lone thing: love. Everything else was negotiable for Jesus.

Notice that Jesus’ love didn’t give the woman a new back. He reached out and touched her in love and called her to stand up and become who she was created to be. That is what love does. Love doesn’t remake a person in our image; it releases them to discover their own worth and destiny. Jesus knew that understanding and expressing true love was a risky thing. True love isn’t sentimentality; it pays a price.

The trouble is that too many of us are like the woman. We live with our heads bent down, seeing only the ground at our feet. She had lived bent over double for 18 years. Her life had no horizon, no vision, no future, no hope. Something had left her bent in half. No one would have blamed her if she had given up and become a shut-in letting others care for her.

But see her courage. No excuses, no self-pity, no blame accusing someone else for her trouble. Fragile and weak though she may have been, she braved the jostling crowd and made her way to Jesus. Even after 18 years, there still was a spark of hope, still a streak of determination, a reservoir of courage and determination. Neither the crowd nor her own pain kept her from Jesus.

Notice, though, that she didn’t rush up to Jesus clamoring for healing with an attitude of entitlement. It was Jesus who scanned the crowd, saw her, and called her over. Of all the people in the crowd that day, what was it Jesus saw in this bent woman? Was it her courage and determination? Was it the absence of self-pity? Was it the fact that not even 18 years of struggle could make her quit?

Lloyd C. Douglas, a bestselling novelist and a congregational minister, vividly imagined Jesus’ encounter with the tax collector Zacchaeus. After Zacchaeus has said he was going to return any money he had overcharged, Jesus asked him why he is changing his ways. Zacchaeus answered, “Because Rabbi, I see mirrored in your eyes the Zacchaeus I was meant to be.”

Who would you become if you grew up to be who Jesus sees when he looks at you?

Let me close with a story about Bill Wilson found in an article entitled “Why I Chose to Live in Hell.” It comes from a Sunday school ministry in the part of New York City that, at the time, was rated as the place where a person was most likely to get killed. Bill Wilson has been stabbed twice and shot. A member of his team was murdered. Bill writes:

One time a Puerto Rican woman named Rosa came to me and asked how she might serve God. The problem was she didn’t speak English, but she was so passionate about helping that I had to find a place for her to serve.

“Okay,” I said, “Rosa, I’ll put you on a bus. Just ride the bus each week and love the kids.” That is what she did. She would find the worst looking kid on the bus and say to him or her the only English words she knew, “I love you and Jesus loves you.”

After several months, she became attached to a little boy named Ray. They said Ray couldn’t talk. He came each week with his sister and all the way there and back he sat on her lap while she whispered to him, “I love you and Jesus loves you.”

One day, after almost a year, to everyone’s amazement, Ray turned, put his arms around Rosa’s neck, and stammered, “I love you, too.” That was 2:30 on Sunday afternoon. At 6:30 Ray was found dead in a garbage bag under the fire escape. His mother had beaten him to death and thrown him in the trash.

I love you and Jesus loves you. Those were some of the last words that little guy ever heard. They came from a woman who couldn’t speak English, but who was a fundamentalist of love.

What are the last words you want to hear? What are the last words you want to speak?

Let’s be fundamentalists of love.