In my final installment of Wisdom from Wibaux, at least for a while, I want to close by contrasting toxic faith with healthy faith. I experienced both in my small, eastern Montana community.
First, let me share about toxic faith because it is, as the name suggests, potentially deadly to the soul. The Christian Fundamental Church would invite teenagers to their church on a whim. In other words, they would show up at your door and ask you to come to youth group, just as you were. One night, I was working on a project and my jeans got dirty. They came to the door and invited me to youth group. I said I needed to change clothes but they said it wasn’t necessary. So, I went to youth group just as I was. Once we got to the pastor’s home for youth group, these same kids changed into dresses and slacks. The “outsiders” stood out like sore thumbs. The whole evening was directed at those of us who were different. The message was strong – you are different and you are bad!
To this day, I cringe when I hear stories of “us” and “them,” most especially in the name of faith. In that one youth group meeting, the narrative they crammed into my soul was, “God is good, you are bad, try harder!” The most amazing aspect of spiritual narratives is how powerful they are with incredible sticking power. To this day, 40 years later, there are days when I have to fight against that narrative. It is one of the reasons why I am so committed to a theology of grace where the narrative is, “God is great, by God’s grace you are loved and forgiven, and train to grow in grace.”
The opposite experience in the same community came from my home church. When the five eighth graders started the school year, church leadership assumed we would become Sunday school teachers for children. Nobody asked us, they simply expected it. That was the tradition of my home town church. There was one adult who helped us but adults expected teenagers to lead the music, teach the lesson, and connect with the parents. That was the primary place I learned the faith because I was teaching it.
There is something about learning by teaching. All four years of high school, I was a Sunday school teacher. Over the years, I have reflected on why this was so healthy. Simply put, it was empowering. Nobody thought I was unable to teach. Everybody in my church believed I could. What an amazing gift when somebody, no matter their age, is entrusted with the message of Jesus’ love. I was asked to preach as a freshman in high school. I was serving Communion on a regular basis and still serving on the Church Council. The message that got into my soul was quite obvious and clear…you may be young, but you are a person of sacred worth and we believe in you! That is healthy faith. I honestly believe that toxic faith without the serum of healthy faith leads to atheism and antagonism.
As you reflect on your own faith experience growing up, was it healthy or toxic and why? The wisdom from Wibaux is that narratives about God and people matter and those narratives lead to life or death spiritually. What are the “tapes” playing in your head and heart?
–Rev. Jeff Gannon