For most of my life I’ve felt like I was someone on the outside looking in. When I was going through my paradigm shift at seminary, I’d often walk down to the beach a few blocks from our home to clear my head. One day I saw a person kayaking alone on the horizon, and as I peered through the viewfinder of my camera to capture the above image, I was reminded that this lonely kayak reminded me a lot of my own spiritual journey.
If someone were to ask me what my spiritual journey feels like, I’d just show them this picture– because the picture says it best.
Me, myself, and I trying to figure out where this shifting current is heading and which bank I should paddle towards.
During this journey vocal tribal members would often yell out from their island, beckoning me to come to their shore because their tribe had the best way to understand God. Yet, most of my visits to those islands left me unsatisfied in my quest, and too often I departed far more wounded than when I arrived at that particular tribe.
As much as I’ve hated it, I’ve always been a Christian outsider. At home no where, and out of place everywhere.
When I think back to my most conservative days, I realize that even when knee deep in the culture I was still internally an outsider– my heart knew that the culture was harsh and unloving– and I was just never able to settle in. My trip to the Island of St. Calvin lasted just a weekend, but was the longest month of my life. The land of mainstream Evangelicalism wasn’t all that bad and the core theology seemed to make sense, but the tribe had blended theology and American culture together to such a degree that it often felt like an entirely new religion. Conversely, while the island of Progressive Christianity is big and wide, it creates a few problems of its own– few people are alike, when they are similar cliques abound, and some parts of the island seem to cross out of Christianity entirely. One can end up feeling every bit as alone as when you’re drifting out to sea.
Such is the life of a Christian outsider.
Yet, I am discovering a beautiful side to being a Christian outsider: it better prepares us to discover the heart of Jesus.
You see, Jesus was an outsider by his own right. In his very first public sermon he declared that a “preacher can find love everywhere but in his own tribe” (my obvious paraphrase of this passage), a sermon that resulted in an assassination attempt by his own community. He was Jewish, yet reserved almost all of his criticism and fighting words for the Jewish leaders. He rejected the rules of the empire and taught his followers to oppose it in radically subversive ways. He refused to observe oral traditions that everyone else seemed to observe, he made his friends among the “unclean” people of society, and staged a public protest in the temple in defense of the exploitation of outsiders– an act of civil disobedience that actually cost him his life.
Jesus was an outsider who lived his life with and for, other outsiders.
In fact when you read his most famous sermon, The Sermon on the Mount, he goes through a pattern of “Blessed are the _______”
Every word Jesus fills in the blank with? They’re all descriptors of outsiders. The very people folks assumed would be guaranteed to be “in” are conspicuously missing from the equation. Meanwhile Jesus declares that the outcast, the set aside, the not included, the “without a tribe” and those who do things backwards, are actually the very people who will find this “Kingdom” he talked so much about.
I believe that Jesus came for everybody, but that not everybody embraces what he has to offer when they find him.
The folks who do embrace him? Well, they’re people like me… and you. The outsiders were always the ones who embraced Jesus.
This is the unexpected benefit of being a Christian outsider: our hearts are more ripe and free from the distractions that keep us from embracing Jesus. In fact, in many respects the longing to quench the loneliness of outsiderness actually drives us to him. It certainly does for me.
Already relegated to the margins means we have few other distractions, few other barriers… we’re just people who know we can’t get our you-know-what together and find the message of Jesus compelling and full of grace. As a result, we develop a never-ending curiosity about this day laborer from Galilee, and find ourselves paddling toward whichever island we see this man of grace and love walking on.
Yes, being a Christian outsider is lonely– even when you’re a high-profile outsider. However, I am discovering that being without a tribe often frees me and pushes me to never stop chasing this man I find in the New Testament… the man with a message so compelling that nothing else in all of human history compares to it.
Today I take great comfort that Jesus came not for the people with their feet planted firmly on the shore, but for people like me who are often set adrift in the vast oceans of life– and who have no island of their own to drift towards.
If you’re feeling like a “Christian outsider”, feeling like you’re left without a tribe and aren’t sure where to go… let me just encourage you that this may in fact be the perfect place to discover the true heart of Jesus of Nazareth– because he was an outsider who came for other outsiders.
People like us.
It’s true that Jesus Christ was often an outsider, as he was basically abandoned by even those who knew Him best when he was crucified. BUT…look at all the people who were drawn to Him also, drawn to Him for healing and other miracles. Jesus Christ also seemed to be a magnet for women, too, i.e., Mary Magdalene, Martha, and Mary, the sister of Lazarus. A lot of people who claim to be so-called outsiders are not really, even in Christendom. They have several friends, are happily married, etc., yet whine about how they are outsiders. Why is that? Cuz they aren’t as popular as Joel Osteen?
Another article that hits the nail on the head for me. I guess I’ve felt like an outsider my entire life….yet one who DESPERATELY needed to feel accepted by others. I know this is a result of childhood wounds but after years in counseling I have tried to fit in the puzzle of organized religion.Boy have I tried, 4 different denominations the past 30+ years wearing many many hats. I sadly confess that much of that effort was ….you guessed it, to fit in and have a sense of belonging. I haven’t quite figured out if I can’t fit their mold because I look at life through a different lense because of my experiences which have driven me ever closer to Jesus, or they just aren’t grasping the seriousness and urgency to know the Savior in a real way and share His love with a wounded world. The compassion I feel compels me to go out and seek an avenue of need. I hope I eventually find it, but in the meantime I am drinking in His word and soaking up as much of His strength and understanding as I can. This is so much easier to do away from the cliques, and critical tongues that wound and damage us when we want to march to a different drum. Thank you and God bless!
Have just finished reading this for a second time and thank you. I often feel left out and sidelined when I see other Christians enjoying church fellowship. I have never been attached to a church as such but yet I do still feel that I have a deep relationship with Jesus even as, and maybe because of being an outsider.
“I am of a sect by myself, as far as I know.”~Thomas Jefferson, letter to Ezra Stiles Ely, June 25, 1819
Thank you, Ben. This article affirmed so much for me, and came at a really needed time.
Great post, thank you for sharing. From another Christian outsider.
I can really identify with what you’ve written; I often feel like a “church” refugee. It’s trying, feeling like you’re alone on the water. I agree that being an outsider can be beneficial to your personal faith, that it can help you to focus on Jesus instead of dogma. But what use are these encounters with God if they don’t enable you to reach out to others? And for me, I find it difficult to do that when I’m not plugged into some kind of community, even when I have reservations about the community. I worry that if I identify as an outsider too much, I won’t be able to invite people in.
The thing with Jesus was that he was able to move outside “his tribe” and interact with other outsiders not just because he was an outsider, but because he knew that these distinctions were superfluous. My “outsiderness” doesn’t always spring from the same well. Often it springs from disagreements with people and traditions, not from some benevolent belief that we really are all Christ’s children regardless of our faith tradition.
So it’s a bit of a conundrum for me. Something that I’m trying to work through. Any thoughts? Cuz I’m stumped :).
His post reaches people like me. I have been coming to his page every day for a couple of weeks now. It’s one of the few religious blogs that seem to express where I am at in my faith right now. My disagreements with the church stem from philosophical views of what the bible actually is, church teachings about homosexual people, as well as women’s roles in church hierarchy.I have been out of the church for about two years now and don’t have plans on returning any time soon. That doesn’t mean that I will not follow Christ, just in a different way. I hope that was helpful.
Benjamin, I can totally identify with you. Thanks so much for sharing on what I imagine can be very difficult terrain for some folk to negotiate. Interestingly I was talking with a fellow artist earlier today, a Christian woman who shares a struggle similar to our own. We agreed “Doing church is one thing, doing the journey is often another.” Sometimes I feel I am very much my family name, Watchman. A Watchman on the wall, an observer, a sounder of warnings. And yes, it can get bloody lonely up on the battlements. In all genuine humility, I have come to accept my “outsidedness” as a type of prophetic vocation – and I share this because you seem cast of the same mould as, no doubt, are others who will identify with what you have shared and so feel inclined to comment here. In this, let us be encouraged. It seems to me our vocation is to the full Body of Christ, not just one isolated part thereof – and I think this creates a necessary and creative tension whenever we try to confine ourselves to one specific “home”. We are already “home”, and in one of those wonderful spiritual ironies, it is our very sense of being an “outsider” that validates our membership of, and function within, the Christian community, inasmuch as the Christian community is, or should be, a beacon of God’s light and love to the world.
It’s always such a delight to have someone else coalesce and verbalize your feelings for you! I feel like I’ve wasted so much of my life as a non-Christian, and then as a Christian, trying to fit in, but I’m finally arriving at the place where I can embrace being an outsider and see how God has used that to poke and prod me into growing. I have to be careful now to find that balance between being comfortable as an outsider and yet finding a community where I can grow and hopefully have a positive impact.
Outsider status is hard, but has lots of compensations. One of the greatest, I feel, is being able to see clearly. With no tribal-loyalties, it’s easier to recognize when you or a group you affiliate with goes off the rails. Insiders rarely see as clearly from the inside.
I’ve been outside any organized belief-system most of my adult life, for many reasons. I don’t regard ‘belief’ as a choice, I can only believe what can be proven to me. I’m a bit of a bear about consistency. I’m not comfortable in large groups. I don’t regard it as improper to question assumptions. I’ve also had some rather negative experiences with believers. I’m not trying to tarnish everyone with this brush, just saying that those experiences cause me to take some aspects of Christianity with a grain of salt.
I don’t identify as Christian. However, I genuinely want to help the poor, marginalized, sick and suffering. I don’t think starting a war should be the first resort to problems. I think it most likely shouldn’t even be on the table as an option. I try to be kind, responsible, welcoming and non-judgmental. I really respect and value the example set by Jesus. I’m not sure what that makes me.
Oh, well, the water’s fine out here. And, I have lots of room to kayak:-)
Benjamin, Hope you remember me…..this is why I have struggled so much in finding true community and not wanting to be a church hopper, but almost fighting a battle against becoming depressed after I go to service. I have SOOO much to say about this but not here….but again, I teared up Benjamin because this is how I feel and have felt for a long time. Especially after I’ve been teaching yoga for a while—it’s such a struggle. A majority of Christians are vehemently opposed to what I do (“what about just teaching Zumba?” they say 🙂 ) AND I find such strong ties in the yoga/fitness community. But Jesus…..that’s who the constant is. Often I fantasize about just hanging out with him and how refreshingly authentic that would feel…that I would finally feel at home. Like the woman who poured the perfume on his feet. Loving because I know I’ve been forgiven much. I’ve been “in love” with Jesus for as long as I can remember—growing up in mainstream Evangelical protestantism (Elmbrook Church in Wisconsin…right near the HQ for InterVarsity and the bible school for New Tribes Missions). I always pictured Jesus as the guy from Jesus of Nazareth (because I sat every night and watched that as a child in the 70’s) with piercing blue eyes. When I was offered the chance to “invite Jesus into my heart” I did so with a full heart because I really did want that Person to live within me. I still have that desire. But, sometimes, because of the clique-i-ness of our church, I sometimes feel like God may be really with and working through the popular cliques, but I’m just an extra on the side. And I’ve been around the Christian block a few times. I’ve visited MANY islands. Gosh, I’m not only a church hopper but an island hopper!! 😀 Anyway, I have been struggling with these many things and had an appt with a counselor that would be considered “fringe-y” too…she encouraged me recently to accept my role as an “odd-bird” and to take joy in it. It’s just that I feel this deep reserve of loneliness every so often…but you’re right, it only serves to drive me closer to the only Real that there is.
BTW, to the atheist/muslim commentator, I have closer friendships with my atheist and muslim and “whatever” friends than I do with many in the church…and there’s the rub.
Of course I remember you! Don’t give up– keep drifting with the current, it does lead somewhere 🙂
You are in the MAJORITY in your country! Try being a Muslim or an Atheist and face REAL hostility as an outsider.
Understood. My context here is that of within Christianity itself.
Given that I wrote a post about Evangelicals becoming Lutheran, I will say something contrary to that. Perhaps part of the problem is the invitation is always to have the outsider come and join us. Instead of beckoning the kayaker to the island, maybe we / I would be better off hoping in my own kayak (maybe it has a Lutheran logo on it) and offering to come paddle for a while.
Beautiful way to look at it!