Tiffany Thomas had reached a crescendo.
“There is deliverance in the music, there is healing in the music, there is love—there is love— in the music!”
As the 29-year-old pastor of South Tyron Community United Methodist Church concluded her testimony about the enduring power of Christian hymns and spirituals to connect people to God, particularly in the black community she serves, the 900+ people crammed into Minneapolis’ St. Mark’s Cathedral that afternoon rose to their feet and cheered.
And in a moment that would repeat itself at least a dozen times over the course of the inaugural “Why Christian?” conference, my friend Nadia Bolz-Weber and I looked at each other from our seats in the choir loft with a mixture of joy and disbelief in our faces, as if to say, “What just happened here?”
The two of us had been plotting and planning for this event for more than a year, but never in our wildest dreams did we expect...this.
...This level of passion, humor, and preparedness from every single speaker.
...This much love and support from everyone involved.
...This undeniable outpouring of the Spirit.
...This fleshy, tangible, complex, multi-faceted, doubt-riddled, question-drenched, hard-won yet resoundingly-clear answer to the great riddle that brought us all there:
Why—with all the atrocities past and present committed in God’s name, amidst all the hostile divisions ripping apart Christ’s Church, in spite of all our own doubts and frustrations and fears about faith—are we still Christian? Why do we still have skin in the game?
I came into the event hoping for just enough faith to answer that question for myself, and I left with cup running over, with those familiar convictions of the Christian faith striking me fresh:
I am a Christian because of the incarnation, because in the words of Jes Kast-Keat, “this is an embodied religion.” Or as Kerlin Richter put it: “I am a Christian because having a body wasn’t always good news for me, but then I met Good News that had a body. In Jesus I met a God who spits and kisses, who yells and cries…I am a messy and embodied person and this is a messy and embodied faith.”
“God knows pain,” declared Austin Channing Brown, “not in an abstract way, but real, bloody, torturous pain…and it matters that God didn’t opt out.” Or as Mihee Kim-Kort so succinctly put it: “I have skin the game because God has skin the game.”
I am a Christian because of sin and repentance, because as Nadia likes to say, “self-righteousness feels good for a minute the way peeing your pants feels warm for a minute,” or as Kerlin put it: “...Christianity is not a good religion for self-improvement. Christ calls us to die to ourselves, not remodel ourselves… So if you want to hangout with grownups, you are going to need to learn to forgive, apologize, repent, and repair.”
I am a Christian because of Scripture, because like Kerlin, “I love being caught up in a sweeping story in which I am not the central character,” and because like Winnie Varghese, I have found that “some of the texts that are the most terrifying turn into the ones that are most comforting and truthful,” particularly to those on the margins.
I am a Christian because the good new is good news for all, because, as Winnie put it, “Christianity is a theology of the Other, the despised and outcast finding a home,” because in the words of Catholic scholar Nichole Flores “human dignity is always the right answer,” and because, as Rachel Murr so boldly declared from the depths of her own painful experiences, “the gospel is good news for gay people too.”
I am a Christian because Christianity gives me the language to lament and to doubt, “to confess the ugly realities” as Austin said—from the violence I observe in the world and in my heart to “to the sin of white America” which Emily Scott described as the attempt “to still the voice of a whole people and keep them from singing.”
I am a Christian because, like Allyson Robinson, “I don’t always know if this story is true, but I choose to live my life as if it were. I choose to live as if the things Jesus died for were worthy of God’s sacrifice and therefore worthy of mine.” Faith is a risk. It’s a gamble. But as Emily Scott put it, “being a Christian means living at the fulcrum of our fear.” I am a Christian because, at the end of the day, the story of Jesus is the story I’m willing to risk being wrong about.
I am a Christian because of the sacraments, which Kerlin describes as “faith under our fingernails,” and where Jes says “abundant life is not only personal, but communal,” experienced in bread, wine, water, words, touch, sound, and smell. In the sacraments, “Jesus comes to us again, and again, and again, and again,” said Jodi Houge, “abundance from scraps and crumbs, God showing up in barley bread.”
I am a Christian because, try as I might, I can’t follow Jesus on my own, because, as Rachel Murr put it, “I want to take part in bringing in God’s kingdom and I don’t know how to that without the community of believers.” And because that kind of community “just isn’t something you get from your yoga class,” as Nadia points out.
And, like Tiffany, I am a Christian because of the music. Not just the music we sing on Sunday mornings, or the music Rachel Kurtz so thoughtfully led us through during “Why Christian?” but the music of holy defiance these fourteen women sang together that weekend.
We were evangelical and Lutheran, Baptist and Episcopalian, Latina and black and white and Indian and Korean, High Church and Low Church, Catholic and Protestant, Reformed and Methodist, straight and gay and bisexual and transgender, pastors and scholars, writers and activists, single ladies and mothers, introverts and extroverts, crunchy dreadlocked mamas, tattooed and foul-mouthed priests, sweet-talkin’ Southerners, and six-inch-heels-boasting fashionistas. We weren’t exactly your typical Christian women’s conference lineup, (nor was this a “women’s conference” to begin with). We were just Christian people doing what Christian people actually do—pastoring, protesting, mothering, teaching, healing, singing, swearing, sweating, overturning tables, setting tables, tearing down walls, calling out demons, breaking bread, confessing sins, baptizing sinners, preaching the Word, taking authority, surrendering authority, laughing till it hurt, forgiving and being forgiven, hugging, crying, doubting, trusting, unapologetically giving testimony and unabashedly cheering one another on. Together we proved that the wisdom of the world—(that women can’t lead, that women can’t support each other, that women are defined by stereotypes and gender norms)— is utter foolishness in light of God’s good work in us and through us.
And with volunteers, a church staff and an audience that caught the vision and sang right along, it just…worked.
It worked because my amazing booking agent, Jim Chaffee, rescued the event at a moment when we thought we’d have to give it up, organized all the logistic, and with the help of his partners Rose, Joy, and Craig, brought life and direction to “Why Christian?” it wouldn’t have otherwise had.
It worked because St. Mark’s Episcopal Cathedral is a beautiful place made up of beautiful (and flexible!) people who gladly served more than 900 people communion from their Table.
It worked because our volunteers were outstanding and took ownership over how best to welcome participants into this sacred space, thinking of all the little details that matter so much to achieving true hospitality.
It worked because, in a way that far surpassed any previous conference experience of mine, our speakers were for one another, literally cheering each other on from the choir loft. No one brought an ego. No one checked out once her part was done. Each woman relaxed into her own personality and speaking style and then listened, rapt, to the next person to speak. There is something profoundly energizing about spending a weekend with women who have been empowered to sing their Jesus song—in their own way and in their own key.
[This spirit of sisterhood can be summed up in one of the highlights of the conference: On Friday afternoon, Emily Scott told a story about how her high school band director, surprised that she had chosen as “unfeminine” an instrument as the trombone, tried to keep her from closing her eyes and swaying to the music by literally pulling her shoulders back and standing on her feet as she played. Emily told the story to illustrate the ways in which we try to silence and stifle one another, an experience with which we women are all too familiar. Well, the next morning, as Rachel Kurtz led the “Why Christian?” congregation in worship, Emily marched out with a trombone in hand and, with eyes closed shoulders relaxed, played “Amazing Grace” as beautifully as I’ve ever heard it. Rachel Kurtz had spent the night before scouring her contact list and driving to a nearby town just to surprise Emily with a trombone and the chance to play her song her way....That was the morning we ran out of tissue.]
“Why Christian?” worked for a lot of reasons, but perhaps most significantly, it worked because of the enduring power of testimony. There simply remains no greater apologetic than a life caught up in the story of Jesus. This, I believe, is what the apostle Paul meant when he instructed Christians to be ready to give a defense for the hope—(not the certainty, not the doctrine, not the logic….but the hope)—that lives within us. I wasn't interested in hearing from people for whom this hope has come easily, but from those for whom it had been hard-won, those for whom it remains a work in progress—ever elusive and yet ever present.
What I loved about “Why Christian?” was that while there were variations in the verses, the refrain was unapologetically orthodox, undeniably Christian. We spoke of sin, repentance, baptism, confession, incarnation, resurrection, and Scripture. We proclaimed the great mystery of the faith—that Christ has died, Christ has risen, and Christ will come again. We served and received communion. We worshipped and prayed together. We gave testimony.
While many (not all) evangelical conferences leave me longing for the freedom to deconstruct and many (not all) progressive Christian conferences leave me longing for something solid upon which to rebuild, “Why Christian?” reminded me both of why I work for reform and why I stay in the game. It reminded me of why I am a Christian to begin with. And it came at a very good time.
I’m so grateful for everyone who helped make it happen, and I look forward to seeing more of you in Chicago next year.
Because folks are bound to ask: Yes, we hope to make some of the talks from “Why Christian?” available online. Details on that are forthcoming. General registration for “Why Christian? 2016” will be available in December, after we’ve given first priority to those who attended this year and those who were on the waiting list. It will be in Chicago, September 30-October 1, at beautiful Fourth Presbyterian Church.
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