Tennessee Vols. When my daughter saw it she said, "Oh, you're wearing that in a bad season." Though some parts of the thought were sad and painful to contemplate she meant it as a compliment.
Yes, that's right, I am not a fair weather fan. They are the team I have celebrated, and cheered for, and moaned and groaned about for years. I am honest enough to admit an abysmal record, bad decisions on the part of Athletic Directors, Coaches, and players. I have sometimes despaired of what was going to happen, what I knew would happen on certain Saturday afternoons. I have not abandoned my love for watching them and cheering them on, and I am delightfully surprised when they do some things well. I have not switched teams, and I don't call the talk shows and rant about how stupid everyone else is but me.
All of that to lead up to the question of loyalty when it comes to my denomination. I am one of those people who belong to the Presbyterian Church in America. Before that I was ordained in the Reformed Presbyterian Church, Evangelical Synod. In 1982 the RPCES joined the larger PCA and so I carry around with me the identity of a PCA Teaching Elder.
If you knew me and my life and background you might wonder why I am in the PCA at all. I certainly wasn't born into it. I grew up in the inner city, and I am not suburban. I am not even hipster urban, more ghetto than anything. I am white but I married a black woman, and there were not a lot of inter-racial couples when I was ordained period, but especially among the conservative Presbyterians. I planted a church among the poor, in the city, trying to reach black folk and there were not a lot of folks doing that when I came in. There were folks who thought it a waste of time, an aberration, and suspect as to credibility as a real church.
Not everyone thought that of course, I have had great friends, champions of what we were doing and wonderful supporters who wanted us to succeed. There were some racists who avoided us, denied us opportunity to speaking engagements, support in missions, and sometimes just the denial of the friendship of a colleague.
When I was first saved no one told me of all the bad stuff of Christianity. I didn't know anything about racism in the church, I didn't know anything about religious wars, I didn't know anything about hypocrisy and legalism and self-righteousness. I didn't know about sexual abuse, emotional abuse, spiritual abuse. I was so naive that I thought Jesus loved me, had died for sinners, and everyone needed to come to know Him like I had come to know Him. I thought Christians were heroes, people who would risk their lives around the world to tell people everywhere about Christ. I thought Christians fed the poor, didn't hold any one's race or economic status against them but welcomed them all. That is what I experienced in the Christians I had first met.
The Black Muslims brought racism to my attention. They told me I was preaching "the white man's religion." " Where did they get that from?", I wondered. I would find out in my reading of history, in my watching the Civil Rights movement unfold before my eyes, and through my own experiences. I remember when one of my older brothers in the Lord who had gone into ministry came home from his job for the holidays. The Rev. Elward Ellis was a Chaplain at Norfolk State College, he was African American. He told me that day, "I am so tired of having Christian piss thrown into my face."
He was in an African American context where Christianity was being challenged on its historical legacy. It was like asking the question, "why would you be a fan of a losing team?" I admit I have less hope for the Tennessee Volunteers than I do for the Church of Jesus Christ. I am an optimist and I believe someday, maybe before I die, Tennessee will have a winning season, an SEC Championship. and a BCS Bowl victory. Yes, I hope for the day when Tennessee kicks the stuffing out of Alabama, Florida, and reigns as national champion. Tennessee, at this writing, is a long way from that. I wonder if they tell freshmen in Knoxville, "don't have hope, be cynical, mock your school, in fact think about transfer because we have had some bad history here?"
Christianity in all of its traditions has some bad history, and certainly the PCA does. Ah, maybe we could say that not just about our denominations but also about ourselves? Since none of us has represented Jesus perfectly, and actually sometimes downright shamefully, does that mean our Savior doesn't deserve loyalty? It is silly of course to demand that anyone joining our denomination, or even confessing themselves to be Christian, should know all about our mess before they take up with Jesus or us. Most of us know fairly little about history when we enter into any relationship, we usually take it from what we see before our eyes and feel from the relationship as to whether or not we can trust it. Can you imagine marrying someone and then finding out they had somewhat of a sordid past, maybe even sexual relationships before the one with us, and then telling everyone you meet they should know how wicked our spouse has been? Probably not a good way to examine the past, not kind, not helpful to marital unity, and fairly hypocritical too.
Maybe I flatter myself but I think I am fairly cynical, bluntly honest, and believe in calling things for what they are. I have no interest in "white washing" (no pun intended but it is understood) the PCA, nor my own congregation, and not even myself. I think history is important, for everyone, and young pastors of all ethnicities ought to know as much of our history as they can, and not just the rosy parts. I like to ask candidates if they know the racial history of our denomination. This to find out if they in fact are racist, or if in fact they care about such Biblical concerns as justice and mercy. Yet, I don't think it loyalty to tell the kind of athletes who would turn the team around they should go join another team because we have had some bad seasons.
Sometimes loyalty can be hard to find around the PCA. We have some ready to have heresy trials for those who differ on fairly insignificant matters. They threaten the unity of the church. We have some who want to abandon the church because women aren't ordained, and go to denominations where they don't seem (to me anyway) of being very active in winning people to Jesus or impacting the culture for Christ. This to me is a threat to the unity of the church. There are some who seem to rub our sins, our bad seasons, in our face so that those who might bring about positive change decide not to join our church. This too is a threat to the unity of the church. I imagine it must be hard for someone with Heisman Trophy potential to be on the same team with someone whose mistakes make the team lose, or look foolish.
Is the Church of Jesus to be like that, so we go where the money is, where the best have gathered, where everyone agrees with us, where we will suffer no embarrassment? Get a clue, if it ain't come yet it will, and sometimes for shameful things you can't imagine and your name will be tied to it. I wear the shirt, in good seasons or bad, and it doesn't have a Tennessee T on it, but a Cross on which my Savior died, and in private or in public I will wear it with you who have named him too as your Lord. I think it fair for all of us to ask that we be honest about our faults. I think it fair for all of us to ask each other to be open to rebuke and correction and humble enough to receive it. Loyalty doesn't buy silence or a failure to purse righteousness. But, if you will put up with me, and own me as your brother, I will own you too.