“...as counselors and neuroscientists continue to confirm, the ability to shape a narrative from your experiences, and to connect your story to a greater one, is essential for developing empathy, a sense of purpose, and well-being.”
—Rachel Held Evans, Inspired
Growing up in a small town in rural Alabama, my first cousins felt a lot like siblings. Melody, Eric, Christina, Candice, Daniel, Caleb, and I were thick as thieves. No matter which side of the family we visited, there was always someone to play with.
One of our favorite games? Hide and seek. When we visited my mom’s parents, we would hide all over their property. Upstairs on the deck, downstairs in the carport, down in the horse stalls, the hayloft, behind (inside and under) the old cars that were parked in the overgrown field. The possibilities were endless.
But as one of the little guys, I never really loved playing hide and seek. The thought of being all alone for a whole five minutes felt terrifying at times. I would beg my older cousins to hide with me, but of course, “that’s not how you play!”
You can imagine my relief when I learned a new kind of hide and seek in Bible college: “sardines.” Sardines, one of the students explained, is basically the opposite of hide and seek. One person hides, and everyone else is looking for that one person. The real twist is that when you find whoever is “it,” you stay with them and continue hiding until eventually, everyone is clumped together with the original person who hid.
Do you have any idea just how much fun it is to play sardines at night in a dimly lit church? We hid under pews, behind the pulpit, in the choir loft, balcony, Sunday school rooms, bathrooms, storage closets, the baptismal (because we were dunkers, not sprinklers), and one genius even found his way to the roof.
It was during these two years in ministry school that I first played sardines with my grandfather. I was deconstructing my childhood faith narrative nearly twenty years before “deconstruction” became a theological buzz word.
The catalyst for my personal deconstruction wasn’t a book about hell by Rob Bell or a fiction story about the Trinity, with God the Father portrayed as a large African American woman who lived in a shack. My deconstruction started because, after growing up in church my entire life, I was twenty years old when I first read the Bible for myself, from cover to cover.
Bible class initially seemed simple and harmless. We would read the Bible, line by line, for ourselves, and we’d make notes about anything we found interesting, inspiring, or had questions about. This sounded great to me! The problem was that they didn’t actually want you to ask the questions. As Rachel Held Evans puts it, “...the evangelical community around me treated them like a wildfire in need of containment.”
I sat and observed the first half of the first class, quickly realizing my notes didn’t quite line up with the rest of the class. Because I had been reared in a theology rooted in fear, shame, and guilt, I could almost feel myself shrinking back in holy terror. God must be watching with a disapproving glance each time I write down my ideas and questions, I thought. Yet, I couldn’t shake the struggle that many portions of Scripture I was reading didn’t line up with the sermons I’d heard all my life, based on the very same verses.
Something was wrong, and as usual, I figured that something was me.
After one of those first weekly Bible classes, I called my grandfather, “Boss,” as we affectionately called him. Boss had never been afraid to go against the grain. He had a bold personality and always spoke his mind. My grandfather shed the addiction to approval long before I came along, and I admired him for it.
Boss and Nanny read a few chapters of the Bible together (and prayed) each morning, but in the thirty-five years that I knew him, I could count the number of times Boss went to a brick and mortar church on one hand. He would rail against the “Christian Machine” and tell you in no uncertain terms just what he thought about organized religion. But that same bold (sometimes harsh) man would often cry when he talked about his relationship with “The Father,” his favorite way to reference God.
So, in the earliest stage of reimagining faith, as my theological house of cards began to wobble, I called my grandfather.
“Can we talk?” I asked, voice quivering.
“Sure, Sugar Boy. Let me go outside.”
Any time Boss could sense I really needed to talk about something personal, he would take his cordless phone and sit outside on the swing, on that very same carport where my cousins and I used to play hide and seek. He would take a deep breath, exhale loudly, and say, “What’s going on, Stevie?”
“I really need to talk to you, Bossy. I’m reading the Bible for myself for the first time, and I’ve got so many questions. You’re the only one I feel safe to ask this stuff.”
After a long pause and another dramatic exhale, my grandfather let out a belly laugh and said, “Well, praise Ye Yah. I’ll meet you at the church in an hour.”
My grandfather, a retired newspaper editor, drove an hour in his beat-up pickup truck. I watched as he got out of his old blue Ford Ranger, wearing some threadbare overalls and a red checkered shirt. If Santa Claus, Wilford Brimley, and Buford Pusser all had a child, his name would be Ben House. I smiled as Boss headed toward the front doors of the church. Rough around the edges, to be certain, but I never doubted the old man’s deep affection for me.
Boss and I sat for nearly two hours that afternoon, me baring my soul to the old man who patiently listened, and regularly exhaled loudly. Toward the end of our time together, my grandfather took off his glasses and took my hands in his. He leaned in close across the table and spoke slowly and quietly. “Stephen, Jacob wrestled with God, and while the incident marked him forever, my son, it was also counted as an eternal blessing.” I nodded as tears rolled down my face.
It was then that Boss told me something I’ll never forget: “Did you know that the word ‘grandson’ never appears in the original text? Remember Father Abraham and his many sons? Stephen, you are no longer my grandson. You are my son.”
Maybe that conversation seems a bit strange to you; maybe it doesn’t. But much like Jacob, that experience in a church coffee shop in Alabaster, Alabama, marked my life forever. After growing up in a culture where we were never allowed to question authority, my grandfather decided to officially adopt me as a spiritual son. That day, he chose to see me rather than brush me aside. He listened to my questions and fears, rather than minimizing what truly felt like a spiritual crisis. And he never tried to fix it. He just reminded me that I belong.
Safety. How would you define it? Is it purely being accepted, no matter what? Isn’t that a little dangerous? Doesn’t conventional wisdom suggest some guardrails? Because if safety really just means messy grace, I know plenty of people who are going to take issue with that kind of sloppy, unconditional love and acceptance. And yet, the crux of the Gospel of Jesus is one that welcomes all people into the safety of relationship.
Safety is about belonging. It’s about dialogue rather than another stale sermon. Safety is about celebrating one’s story, rather than censoring it. Safety is rooted in love, rather than heartless criticism and fear-based judgment. Safety isn’t about cramming everyone into a neatly defined box, confining them to the unrealistic expectations of people who offer disconnected demands without support.
To feel safe - we must first feel seen, heard, and accepted. It doesn’t mean everyone in the whole world has to agree with us - it might not even mean they have to fully understand. But it does mean they’ll take the time to try.
There are three people with whom I feel most safe: my grandfather (whom I told you about previously), my grandmother, and my wife. Perhaps you say, “Well, of course! Who doesn’t feel safe with a grandparent or their spouse?” But not all people feel completely safe in the presence of a spouse or a grandparent - in fact, great harm has been caused by spouses and grandparents. Titles don’t always equal safety - plenty of people use their positions in wicked and cruel ways.
So what makes those three people so safe? Exactly what I mentioned earlier: that even if we don’t agree 100% of the time, at the end of any conversation, I walk away feeling seen, heard, respected, and accepted.
I started deconstructing my childhood faith narrative several years before my wife began reimagining her own faith. Sure, there were times when she just didn’t get it, but Lindsey has never belittled me, or placed her personal expectations or assumptions on my spiritual journey. She’s always given me plenty of wiggle room, empowering me to stay curious about a multitude of things.
In much the same way, I feel the freedom to dialogue with my grandmother about absolutely anything. A conservative, raised mostly by Southern Democrats, my Nanny has always given me space to explore and experiment to better understand and discover my true self.
At least once a month, I take my Nanny a couple of books that have shaped my current understanding of the nature of God. I’ve introduced my 83-year-old grandma to Rob Bell, Rachel Held Evans, Paul Young, and Ed Bacon, to name a few. One of the things I most adore about my grandmother is that she approaches each topic or issue with the desire to understand. And I’ve learned that when she’s struggling with something, rather than becoming critical or closed off, she’ll say, “That’s really interesting. I’m going to have to give that some more thought.”
When I handed Nanny a copy of my latest book, Catching Your Breath, I was nervous as can be. In that book, I’m very open about my religious deconstruction, my strong liberal leanings, and the fact that I’m completely gay-affirming. Like most books I send her way, Nanny read it twice before she was ready to talk. Does my grandmother support all of the same views as me? Certainly not. But because she cherishes our relationship - dare I say, our friendship - she consistently puts my personhood over any issues on which we might not see eye-to-eye.
In my marriage as well as my role as a grandson, I am safe. Because, to the people who love me best, our relationship always takes priority over the agenda. When it comes to safety, it seems the only agenda is love.
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Steve Austin is an author, speaker, and life coach who is passionate about helping overwhelmed people learn to catch their breath. He is the author of two Amazon bestsellers, "Catching Your Breath," and "From Pastor to a Psych Ward." Steve lives with his wife and two children in Birmingham, Alabama.
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