In the summer of 1972 I almost cut my hair. Like David Crosby sang, “It was gettin’ kinda long.” At that time I dressed as most in my crowd did: a flannel shirt, worn button-fly Levis, and unique to me, knee high leather moccasins. I also wore my hair flowing down the middle of my back. Scraggly sideburns dirtied my cheeks. 1972 was also the summer I began following Jesus, or—more realistically—stumbling after Jesus. As part of my reform, on Sunday morning I set out to find a church to belong to. That’s the day I learned two beautiful truths from the pastor who offered to cut my hair.
Do You Have to Behave Before You Belong to Christ’s Kingdom?
South Sheridan Baptist Church was a sprawling congregation near my home. Seemed popular. On Sunday I arrived, if not fashionably dressed, fashionably late. I don’t remember the sermon but I remember the altar call. I still had tons of sin to unload on Jesus so I went forward.
Kneeling near the altar someone grabbed my shoulder. I looked up at a man dressed in a dark suit, white shirt, and dark narrow tie. I thought maybe he was an undercover cop.
“Do you want to receive Christ as your savior?” he asked, looking down on me literally and spiritually.
I stood. Tucked my hair behind my ears and said excitedly, “No, I gave my life to Christ at Camp Elim on June 17. I’m now a Christian.”
“Not with long hair like that you aren’t.”
“Jesus had long hair,” I argued. After all, I had seen what I thought were pictures of him on cigarette rolling paper packages. Undercover ignored this fact.
“I’ve got a pair of scissors back here.” He pointed behind the drapes. “I can cut your hair and then you can pray for Christ to come into your heart.” If nothing else, he was prepared.
The First Beautiful Truth Is with Jesus Belonging Comes Before Behaving
Whether Undercover knew it or not, he adhered to an old and false theology that demanded you must first behave, then believe, and then we might let you belong. Unfortunately this view was and still is widespread. And deadly.
We may sing “Just as I Am” but most of our church systems are built on behavior modification more than unconditional acceptance. And many of us remain anchored to the bottom of a sea of shame.
Adult baptism, church membership, and participation in communion in most churches are withheld until one can prove one’s beliefs and behavior matches the group’s doctrinal statement.
Worse many of us secretly believe this falsehood. We believe we will not be accepted by God unless we behave. We say God loves us and we are his children. But we believe in our hearts that true acceptance only comes when we behave according the the love-giver’s expectations. This is how the rest of the world operates. We profess grace and subsist in a jail house of conditional love.
This is not how Jesus operated. “Come follow [belong to] me,” he said to his confused, bedraggled, long-haired, faithless, imperfect disciples. Jesus’ biographer, Mark, reports Jesus becoming indignant twice. Once when a leper thinks, because of his appearance and behavior, he could not matter enough to Jesus to be healed. Yet Jesus accepts and touches him. He becomes indignant again when children are not allowed to come to him. Jesus takes them in his arms and says, “The kingdom belongs to such as these.”
The Second Beautiful Truth Is Becoming Grows from Belonging
God created us to belong, to be attached. Modern science shows us healthy attachments produce more secure, happy, fulfilled people. Not perfect people but adaptable, growing. Abandonment produces trauma and people adrift and unsure they could ever be loved.
We are born into families and slowly grow to believe in the love that surrounds us and even more slowly then become who God knit us together to be. “Raise children in the way they should go and they will not depart from it” is an attachment truth more than an obedience proverb.
This is because love is a more powerful transformational force than law. Attachment love molds and strengthens from the inside out. Law builds a facade that the merest dust devil can tear asunder. Obedience allows us to fit in. Love asks us to belong.
Both sons in the Prodigal Parable belong to the Father first. The difference? The older believes his behavior has earned his place. The younger simply begs to be readmitted to the family which he abandoned.
The law leaves the older an outsider and the grace of belonging transforms the younger.
Thus Jesus calls us to belong, believe, and then—not behave—but to become. Of course behavior (repentance) and belief play a part as well. And belonging, belief, and becoming are not so much linear as they are cellular, one producing growth from the other. Still Jesus’ invitation was almost always to belong first. “Follow me and I will make you fishers of men.” The gospels are the stories of Jesus’ belongers learning to believe and then becoming faithful disciples. Your life and my life can be the stories of Jesus belongers believing and becoming as well.
Finding a Place to Belong
I’m convinced this is part of the reason for the Great Exodus from the modern church. We are bent on behavior modification more than transformational belonging.
That day in 1972 I left South Sheridan with my hair, sideburns, and, by God’s grace, relationship with Jesus intact. I never returned there but found a home at a charismatic church named Redeemer Temple. They embraced long-haired imperfect hippies. The freedom I experienced there was transformational. The change that undercover pastor hoped cutting my hair would produce was instigated instead by acceptance.
At Redeemer I learned to worship, love others, love myself, immerse myself in the scriptures, share my faith, sing sacred songs, live forgiven, serve, and more. Maybe above all I saw joy in the midst of difficulty. It was an exuberant place. My family was disintegrating. The Viet Nam war raged. Nixon was bent on destroying the nation. Riots, disorder, prejudice, uncertainty filled every news cast.
Yet on Sundays and Friday nights at worship we smiled at one another, hugged strangers, heard words of correction and comfort, raised our hands in praise, shouted and danced. We departed with the hope of Jesus. My young trauma frozen soul needed that grace-induced freedom more than I needed a haircut and a shave.
I did not realize it then (and maybe neither did Redeemer. They later became very legalistic.) but they let all of us Jesus Freaks belong as we believed and became. I know two other people who experienced the halcyon grace of God in Redeemer in those days and who later became pastors.
Think of your life. I’d wager the times you’ve grown the most have been when you knew you belonged unconditionally in Christ’s kingdom not when someone held a pair of sicsors set to incise your sin.
Here is another helpful blog on God’s unconditional love: Will God Abandon You if You Doubt Your Faith? and a prayer you can utter for acceptance: Praying Like a Child: A Childlike Prayer for You. And last week’s Sunday Psalm: May God Remember our Forgotten Sacrifices that We May Live More Sacrificially
P.S.: Thank you for the prayers for my bout with COVID. I am recovering and should be back to triathlons in several years. But seriously, I’m doing much better.