Leaving Salem

On this day in history, October 18, 1970, the lives of Roy and Rita McBrayer changed forever. Roy, a shy boy and a month shy of his twenty-second year, and Rita, even younger, were two redneck kids weaving their way through life, Vietnam, and Nixon. When Rita awoke on this day more than four decades ago from a drug-induced sleep at Floyd Medical Center, she was given the good and glorious news by an anxious doctor: “Congratulations! You have a daughter…and a son.”

Yes, my twin sister and I celebrate our breaking into the world today, she two minutes ahead of me, and she has never let me forget it (she was also bigger and stronger than me for most of my life and took my presents away from me at every birthday party – I haven’t let her forget that either). We were born two months early and barely made to the hospital in time for delivery. Even though my mother kept telling my father she was in labor, he didn’t believe her. She is the excitable type, you know, but early labor it was (She has never let him forget that either).

Born in the foothills of the North Georgia Appalachians, I suppose I’ll be an uncultured hillbilly of sorts until the day I die. See, try as I might, I can’t shake my love for all things southern. Deep-fried cooking, Jeff Foxworthy, the sacred writings of Lewis Grizzard and Ferrol Sams, Georgia Bulldog football, grits, the Allman Brothers Band, the “See Rock City” barns, even this terrible twang when I speak: I can’t shake these off no matter how long I live.

Another southern thing I have had a hard time shaking is my religious upbringing. To be sure, there was a swarm of good and graceful people in my life. Still, I barely – and I mean barely – survived the fire-and-brimstone, fundamentalist, dispensational, hyper-legalistic, KJV-only, indoctrination of my hard shell Baptist-reared childhood. But in the great comedy of God, I have spent my adulthood in ministry, both preaching in and protesting against; both loving and leaving (sometimes loathing); both running away from and returning to the church. The faith I’m trying to keep isn’t in organized religion, however, God knows. It is in Jesus.

My experience with hard, graceless religion has rung a bell with many of you who read this every week. I hear regularly from those who have laughed, cried, and been challenged by my flimsy words here. And I also hear regularly from those have been angered by what I have to say. That’s okay too; I can bear a little hate mail because countless people have been ground into the dust of religious legalism, manipulation, guilt-bearing, and fear-mongering. And I say, enough of that. Absolutely enough.

Christ came to give us rest and peace, the light and lightness of life, not to exchange our slavery to sin and self-destruction for the equally heavy chains of religious domination. In fact, Christ came not to start a religion at all, but to change our lives and our world with boundless grace. In the words of a bumper sticker on my wife’s car (who is older than me, shhh): “Faith is a journey; not a guilt trip.”

So, for what it is worth, and with whatever years I have left, I’ll keep saying the only thing I know to say: “God loves you, just as you are, and true life is found in the grace of his Son, Jesus.” Don’t let religion (or any other brother or sister) take that gift away from you.


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