It's 5 a.m. and I'm in a hotel room preparing for the second day of a conference on Middle East Peace.
Conference attendees are human rights activists from the United States, Israel and Palestine. Some are people of faith; some are not.
Wednesday night, one speaker described evangelicals as the "problem children" in the room, presumably because we are not generally known as peacemakers.
Increasingly, in meetings focused on a wide variety of human tragedies, I hear these words: "What are you doing here? I didn't think evangelicals cared about these things."
I understand those comments. I grew up in a form of Christianity in which "saving souls" was pretty much all that mattered. The God I discovered in that church was a harsh, demanding tyrant; I knew that if I wanted to earn God's love I would have to be very good, follow all the rules, and work very hard. As a devout adolescent I did that. As a young pastor's wife I did that.
Unfortunately, I worked a little too hard and eventually became utterly exhausted, seriously depressed, and physically sick. That plunged me into a total life crisis in which I felt compelled to give up the God of my childhood.
Fortunately, a wise friend said to me, "For a while, forget everything you've ever thought about Christianity; forget the Old Testament; forget Paul and the epistles -- and just read Jesus."
So for months -- for years actually -- I just read Jesus. And slowly but surely, Jesus reshaped my understanding of what it meant to be a Christian.
First, in Jesus I found the Lover of my Soul.
I found a Living Presence who says, "If you're weary, come to me and I'll give you rest. If you're empty, come to me and I'll fill you. If you're lonely, come to me and I'll be with you." I realized that I could bring my very weary self to Jesus and find the deep rest I needed.
I found a God/man who tenderly welcomed children. Even when other people wanted to send them away, Jesus picked the children up, sat them on his lap and wrapped his arms around them. I realized that even when I feel as weak and vulnerable as a child, Jesus will welcome me.
I met Someone who honored and lifted up women who felt invisible, devalued and misunderstood in a culture that considered them little more than a piece of property. I realized that anytime I feel invisible or devalued or misunderstood, I can go to Jesus and be seen in a way that no one else sees me.
I met a Forgiver who extends his hand to all manner of sinners and says, "Go and sin no more." I realized there was nothing I had done or could do that would put me beyond the reach of Divine Forgiveness.
At that point in my life I desperately needed to be welcomed, valued, understood, seen and forgiven. I desperately needed to sit in that Presence of ultimate and unconditional love. I needed to know -- and I still need to know, every day -- that I am loved despite my failures, tha I am loved for the uniqueness of my true self, and that I am loved as I sit quietly doing absolutely nothing to earn, or buy, or chase that love.
I cannot wrap my brain around what I just wrote. I don't know how Jesus allows me to experience his Presence and his Love. But he does. Whenever I lean fully into the reality of my loneliness, my insecurity, my fear, or my brokenness, I find Jesus there loving me.
That has become a Mystery I cannot live without.
In Jesus I also found a radical call to compassionate action in the world. At Jesus' first public appearance he said, "I have come to set the captives free and to preach good news to the poor." Then, through his teaching and life of servanthood, he slowly and methodically turned the values of the powerful Roman Empire upside down.
He threw the moneychangers out of the temple because they were exploiting the poor. He said that when we feed the hungry or clothe the naked it's like we're doing it to him. He said to love our enemies, to do good to those who hate us.
Jesus changed the rules and ushered in an upside-down Kingdom.
The early church was known for the way it loved, not just within the little band of believers, but beyond it. Jesus' first followers met daily to sing and pray and honor the presence of Jesus in their midst, and then they shared their material resources so freely that none among them had any need.
Histories of the early church record that when deadly plagues cut a black swath through communities, all the healthy people left except the crazy followers of Jesus, because they knew they were called to care for the sick -- for the least -- and they weren't afraid of the consequences, even death.
I am a Christian today because of what I found in Jesus.
In the lover of my soul and the radical activist, I found the Christianity my mind and my soul had longed for.
In my humble opinion this is what it means to be an evangelical.
But whatever the label, I believe it's the Christianity that our world desperately needs to see.
Lynne Hybels, co-founder of Willow Creek Community Church in Illinois, is author of Nice Girls Don't Change the World and a columnist for Sojourners magazine.
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