How Boulder taught me about offensive grace

A few weeks ago, my pastor was talking about a conference he had been asked to speak at. It was a church-planting conference full of eager young pastors who wanted to seek and save the lost. No doubt if you’re a Christian you’ve heard that catch phrase before. It’s a nice one and sounds genuine and compassionate. He said he asked them a question, which he also asked to us at the service: “What level of lost-ness are you comfortable with?”

Because here’s the thing: people are messy. People have been hurt. People have hurt others. People have committed crimes. People have mental health issues. People have physical health issues. People cuss. People might not bathe as often as you would like them to. People might be really overly annoyingly friendly or inappropriate. And people have engaged in those particular sins that we Christians like to think of as being the “worst” sins. And when God says that he loves ALL people and that he sent Jesus for ALL people, he really did mean ALL people.

Many Christians (and churches) will talk about wanting to seek and save the lost, but when we get right down to it we’re only comfortable with people that max out at 6 on the lost-ness scale.  At 7 or 8 we gulp and sweat and our hearts beat faster, and when there’s a 9 or 10 we whip being-in-the-world-but-not-of-the-world out of a Biblical holster as we flee – saying we don’t want ourselves or our children around people like that.  Instead maybe we look on them with pity, saying how sad their sin makes us but never deigning to cross the gap and hear their stories.

I listened to the sermon three times, because I kept being struck by that question: “What level of lost-ness are you comfortable with?”  When I look back at my life I can see how much this question has dogged me for 14 years.

Fourteen years ago, I arrived in Boulder as a young and admittedly-naïve 19-year-old. I had grown up in a sheltered and conservative and Christian environment. Attending Christian schools for all of my upbringing – as a kid and then by my choice; volunteering at church as a Sunday school teacher since age 12; going on three mission trips to Mexico before age 20; being a goody-two-shoes rule follower; and deliberately building a nice, safe Christian bubble around myself.

Don’t get me wrong, those things aren’t necessarily bad. Some of them are even really really good – like I’m so grateful for the opportunity to attend phenomenal Christian schools and go on those missions trips.

It’s just that after years of working to build my very impressive Christian bubble, I was completely unprepared for Boulder.

For those that may be unaware, “The People’s Republic of Boulder” has a reputation. It’s the town of hippies and potheads and liberals and crazy environmentalists and New-Age Yogis and Buddhists and atheists – as well as the natural, organic, outdoorsy, athletic folk. The joke in Colorado is that Colorado Springs is full of the religious freaks, and Boulder is full of the rest of the freaks. In other words, Boulder was unlike anything I had known whereas Colorado Springs might have fit me like a glove.

That was the height of the University of Colorado’s party-school rep as well. While in high school I had surrounded myself with people whose idea of a fun night was movies and board games and crafts, I was now confronted with a college culture where people were drinking, using drugs, engaging in casual and/or experimental sex, and occasionally having a riot burning couches in the middle of the street. Surely there were people in my pre-Boulder days doing things like this, but thanks to my Christian bubble I never even knew they existed. (Likewise, it’s important to point out that there were plenty of students at CU who did not do these things.)

I’m certain that I would have encountered situations like this anywhere that I had gone to college. But I don’t think I would have sat up and paid attention and felt as uncomfortable and be as forced to grow in my faith as dramatically anywhere but Boulder.

One morning as I got off the bus at 7:40 a.m. and was walking across the still-silent campus to class I cracked open my Bible, and a verse jumped out at me.

One night the Lord spoke to Paul in a vision: “Do not be afraid; keep on speaking, do not be silent. For I am with you, and no one is going to attack and harm you, because I have many people in this city.”  Acts 18:9

I sought out a campus ministry and latched on hard. I sought out a church and latched on hard. To this day some of those people are still my closest friends. And I discovered that it was true that God had many people in this city. They also had some of the strongest faith I have ever known – maybe from living in an environment like Boulder where it’s difficult to be a casual Christian. Even then I worked to never let myself get “polluted by the world” – or polluted by Boulder in this case. My Christian bubble had been shaken by my physical relocation, and now I felt like I was constantly patching leaks.

The longer I lived in Boulder the more I discovered that, like all stereotypes, Boulder’s reputation was mostly just that. A stereotype. Sure there were liberals and hippies and radical environmentalists and potheads – but the vast majority of the people I met were just as vanilla as the people of suburban Denver I had grown up around.

When I went back to Denver or other parts of Colorado and said that I was from Boulder, I could see people’s eyes go a little wider. They would ask what it was like living there.

I think they expected to me to say that you can’t help being stoned all the time because everyone is constantly smoking pot everywhere – when in reality I didn’t even know what pot smelled like until a year after I lived there and someone identified it for me. Or that I had to learn to survive on wheatgrass and kefir because there was nothing else available to eat – when in reality I survived on Subway sandwiches, not because I particularly liked them but because I was a poor college student and a foot long veggie sub was $3.50. Or that you couldn’t drive a car because environmentalists were blocking the streets to protest carbon emissions – when in reality the streets were usually just closed for new construction. Or that I couldn’t sleep at night because the naked hippies and their drum circles kept me awake – when in reality I could sleep fine, except if there was a raucous party down the hall (still a college town after all) and I have yet to see a naked hippie in Boulder though I have seen a guy riding a bicycle wearing nothing but a red thong (still a college town after all, plus it was Halloween).

There were still some oddball people in Boulder, for sure, but they were definitely the exception rather than the norm.

As for the atheism, yeah, there are non-Christians in Boulder. I don’t know how many. I haven’t bothered to stand on the sidewalk with a clipboard and survey people. But I also haven’t been punched when I say I’m a Christian. But there are non-Christians everywhere – even if they aren’t as visible or outspoken as the ones in Boulder. Just because one lives in an environment where Christianity is more of the norm and more ingrained in the culture doesn’t mean that the people living in it are Christians.

I think what was so interesting about Boulder is that people felt authentic. Because Boulder’s reputation for weirdness was so high – and most people didn’t meet those levels – they felt comfortable expressing their own varying levels along the spectrums of weirdness. And they were overall accepting of the weirdness of others. The longer I lived here, the more I enjoyed weird Boulder and its weird people.

Let me pop back up to that question “what level of lost-ness are you comfortable with”. Because before and in my first several years at Boulder, I wouldn’t go higher than probably a 4. Maybe even 3. I’m the girl who in high school boycotted Disney because of their support of gays. I’m the girl who shunned a friend after she gave her testimony about how before choosing to follow Christ she slept around. I was the girl who was shocked that my college even had alcohol mitigation efforts – because if you’re under 21 you shouldn’t be drinking it in the first place and why weren’t they rubbing that law in people’s faces?

I wasn’t quite Hillary Faye, but I was close.

I thought I was better than everyone else.  Well, maybe not everyone, but at least I was wrecking the curve and proud of it. And even though I went to school there and later lived there, you’d never see me associating with the heathens of Boulder or CU. I thought everyone who was “worse than” me was undeserving of grace. Maybe God might extend grace to people once they cleaned up their act and moved from being a 6 to being a 3 or a 4, but they had to come halfway.

And because to me they weren’t worthy of God’s grace, they weren’t worthy of mine – or even my consideration or acknowledgement.

One thing that opened my eyes was attending Flatirons Community Church. I think they do a great job of welcoming anyone and everyone who is interested in finding out more about Christ. Once I was coloring with some kids in Sunday school when they started talking about moms. “My mom’s a teacher.” “My mom’s a nurse.” And then one little girl said, “My mom’s.. in jail,” and her lower lip began to wobble. I’d attended other churches that tried, really honestly tried to be open and welcoming to everyone – but I also knew that in many cases the opportunity for juicy gossip would make a confession like this extremely unlikely.

Another thing that opened my eyes was discovering a weird corner of the internet called Offbeat Bride (later expanded to Empire) where there were photos and stories of people with vibrant tattoos and crazy piercings and colored dresses getting married – even pregnant brides and lesbians! Basically, the kind of people you would probably never see in bridal magazines. The more I observed and read their stories, the more I realized that people were still people no matter what they looked like or where they were from or what their backgrounds or beliefs were.

And God loves EVERY one of them.

So why didn’t I? Why was I drawing arbitrary lines in the sand?

Grace is so offensive that if you aren’t offended by it you probably haven’t encountered the real thing.  -Tullian Tchividjian

A few years ago a friend sent me a link to a sermon from his church about Judas where the pastor posed what if Judas went to heaven? There is a list of disciples in Mark 3:13-19.  Judas is mentioned last and is the only one with his sin spelled out.  But read through this modified version of that same passage from Mark (bolded sections added in):

These are the twelve he appointed: Simon (to whom he gave the name Peter) – who denied Jesus three times the night before he was executed; James son of Zebedee and his brother John (to them he gave the name Boanerges, which means “sons of thunder”) – who were consumed with the place and privilege of power; Andrew, Philip, Bartholomew, Matthew, Thomas, James son of Alphaeus, Thaddaeus, Simon the Zealot – all of who abandoned Jesus in his time of need; Thomas – who doubted that Jesus actually resurrected; and Judas Iscariot – who betrayed him.

What if it’s more than theology and perspective that make us want to demonize Judas?  What if we like putting Judas (or others like him) at the end of the list with his sin spelled out because we like to believe that we are on the front end of the list with our sin being hidden?

We have no way of knowing where Judas is, of course.  But we do know that Judas followed Jesus for three years and witnessed many of Jesus’ miracles and teachings and that Jesus sent him out with the other 11 disciples with the authority to heal disease and cast out evil spirits… and then Judas capped his life by betraying Jesus. Did that one specific sin exclude him from heaven? The Bible says that one sin does not seal our fate (nor does a thousand sins, while we’re at it).  So was Judas a candidate for grace?

I brought this up once when I was at a Bible study, and I could see people in the room were visibly offended that I even SUGGEST the POSSIBILITY that Judas COULD be in heaven. And it was like looking in a mirror. I saw then how I had been judging everyone whether I knew them or not, based upon their sins or circumstances, and how grace truly offended me.

Because grace covers everything. EVERYTHING. God extends his grace to anyone and everyone who wants it.

I’m not saying that there isn’t sin and that everything is permissible. I’m saying that it’s not my place to judge anyone; that’s been left up to God. What I have been called to do is to love everyone and let them know that God loves them. The most-asked question of Jesus was, “Why are you hanging out with those people?” By associating with them he wasn’t saying that their sin was okay, but he was saying that he loved them now (Romans 5:8 – “while we were STILL sinners”). And I became convinced that I should love them now too. Not wait to bestow love and grace upon them if they one day choose to follow Christ and clean up their act.

I’ve really grown to love Boulder and all of its weirdness. Because the dreadlocked, barefoot woman picking out avocados at the farmer’s market and the old guy in the fedora and roller skates who’s always dancing at Bands on the Bricks and the dude who was wearing nothing but the red thong remind me that God doesn’t draw lines marking some people “in” and some people “out” when it comes to grace. And thank goodness! Because if he did, why did I always think that when he drew a line I would fall on the “in” side? Because I have sinned as well. Sooooo much. No details because it’s not your business, but you can already see some of it in what I’ve admitted to above. Hate. Pride. Arrogance.

When I tell people I’m from Boulder, I still get some wide-eyed looks. Even from people who may only live a few miles away. And now those offend me. Because there are just as many weird and lost people in your city. Probably, like me, you’ve just chosen to not see them.

Loving weird Boulder doesn’t mean I’m out doing street preaching and handing out tracts. (For one thing I don’t think those things have great efficacy in our culture and for another thing I’m still an introvert.) It also doesn’t mean that I’ve embraced Buddism and taken up smoking pot. (Though the Boulder environmentalists have taught me how to be a better steward of God’s creation.) It does mean that I’m more interested in getting to know and build relationships with the people that God brings into my path – which includes a lot of people that I would have run from before.

And the levels of lost-ness that I’m comfortable with have slowly been going up. They’re not great and I still need to work on my extrovert skills, but I’m starting by doing my best to not look down at anyone.

A few months ago a high school student was telling me about Seattle, where her brother goes to college and where she was considering going. She said that per her brother naked old people would gather under a certain bridge to party. Fourteen years ago my first thought would have been shock and horror and “I’m never going to Seattle”! Instead, my first thought was, I’ll bet those are some really interesting people. I’ll bet they’re having a fun time. And I would genuinely be interested in meeting them. 

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