Make Room for Others Who Believe Differently
When I was a little girl, my family didn’t go to church. But almost every summer we traveled back home to my grandmother’s farm in northern Louisiana, where I went with her to the old country church down the road. I thought of that church as God’s house, but I knew God didn’t hang out only there; she followed my grandmother everywhere she went. Mamaw was my first memory of God—someone who kept me safe, wrapped her warm, loving arms around me, and enfolded me into her bosom just because she delighted in my presence.
Mamaw’s God was an up-close, not-afraid-to-get-her-hands-dirty kind of God; she fed me biscuits and fried chicken, saved me from the black snake slithering too close for comfort, and forgave me when I hid my black-eyed peas—the ones she had grown, picked, shelled, and boiled—in my iced tea because I didn’t like the mealy way they tasted. She even cared about the dogs, gathering the scraps from our plates and setting them outside in a pie tin for the strays that came around. I knew in the marrow of my bones that Mamaw’s God loved me. In the deepest part of my spirit, I knew I was lovable.
Not long after I turned fourteen, I went with some kids from my neighborhood to a church youth group and heard about a God whose son had to die because of me. A God who could not be in my presence and was not delighted in me. They told me I was bad and that only Jesus dying on the cross could make me good. Only Jesus could bring me back to God.
This did not sound like my grandmother’s God, the God who showed up everywhere, even on Mamaw’s back porch; the God who wrapped her arms around me and drew me close. This new God sounded distant and harsh, like a judge with a gavel, pronouncing me guilty.
It didn’t make sense to me that if I said a few abstract words, a simple prayer, then God would accept me. I didn’t have to say anything to be accepted and loved by Mamaw’s God. But Mamaw’s God was a thousand miles away, and I wanted to be a part of the youth group. So I kept my questions to myself and said the words I had been told to say. Then I was told I was now acceptable to God; I could go to heaven after I die.
I had hoped that once I said the right words, I would feel the same way I had felt back on my grandmother’s farm. But I didn’t. My suspicions were confirmed. Saying the right words might be enough to get into heaven, but it wasn’t going to be enough to get back to Mamaw’s God.
Now that I knew God set conditions, I recognized I would not only have to say the right words; I would also have to do the right things if I was going to get God to love me the way she loved me back at Mamaw’s house. I was going to have to figure out what pleased God and then make sure I did those things.
My young self was perceptive enough to understand that love and acceptance by others is naturally conditional. Why would I have thought God was any different?
So I grew into adulthood working hard to earn and keep the approval of others, including God. As a result, I lost my sense of self. I also lost my memory of Mamaw’s God.
By the time I reached my thirties, the burden had become so heavy that I finally crumbled beneath its weight. Living a false self for so many years—decades, really—had taken its toll on me physically, mentally, and spiritually. I went to see a counselor, and together we ever so slowly dismantled my self and put me back together again. It was a daunting process, one that required peeling off and sifting through layer after layer—all the detritus and the dung—to get down to the core of who I was. But in the end it was exhilarating as I discovered my inquisitive, sensitive, lovable self.
And that was when I began to remember my grandmother’s God.
I remembered the unconditional love and acceptance of Mamaw’s God, the way she delighted in me and drew me close to her; how she nurtured me and saved me and forgave me. And finally, finally, I could hear God calling me Beloved once again.
I began to re-discover the relational faith I had once known. I began to understand Scripture as a story of God interacting with humanity rather than a guidebook of dos and don’ts.
Eventually, this led me to seminary, and it wasn’t long until I started questioning the popular understanding of the atonement, the one that said Christ paid the penalty for my sins so I could be reconciled to God and go to heaven after I die. This was the understanding of God the youth group had introduced to me, an understanding that led to faith in a conditional God. This was the understanding of God that the religious students I struggled with claimed, which they expressed by following a moral code, a set of rules of what they believed was acceptable to God.
As I explored further in my seminary studies, I was pleased to discover the various other ways that Christians down through the centuries have believed in the significance of Christ’s death, ways that point to the unconditional love of God, to a relational God rather than a transactional God, a God who nurtures and saves and forgives us freely, with no strings attached.
As a college chaplain, this was why I had such a hard time with the religious students whose behavior pointed to a conditional God. I wanted them to believe in a God who loves us unconditionally, and I wanted them to treat others in a way that would reflect the unconditional acceptance of God.
Then I was hit with the reality that I didn’t want to treat them that way.
Praise for Common Space Between Us
“Common Spaces Between Us is a timely book! The stories presented here invite us to think, reflect, and more importantly to see our common humanity regardless of our differences and treat one another with respect and dignity.”
—Hugo Magallanes, Perkins School of Theology, Southern Methodist University
“The church is blessed when ministers enter the complicated spaces where persons live, search, and struggle, and Melynne Rust has offered us a gift in sharing her own journey.”
—Ken Carter, Bishop, The United Methodist Church, Florida Conference
“We are drowning in a sea of partisanship. But we can do something about it. Melynne writes about the power of relationships to overcome our fear-based separatism. The stories she shares are the proof it can be so. Her life and work have made it so. Her book is a call for us to go and make it so.”
—Steve Harper, author, speaker, retired seminary professor
“Melynne invites us into her story, the students’ story, and into our own story as she reveals what it is to be human alongside one another. What we have in common is the fear, the pain, the complexity and the need for connection.”
—Ramona Reynolds, BCC, ACPE Certified Educator
“In a world that is becoming more fractured and polarized with each passing day, Common Spaces Between Us offers a much-needed alternative view. By allowing us – through her storytelling – to walk the path toward openness and acceptance with her, Melynne gifts us with visions of possibility, of grace, of hope.”
—Kathy Swaar, author, retired university instructor, retired pastor
“This book is relevant to people of all different beliefs and different walks of life. We live in a wonderfully diverse world, and rather than making that diversity problematic, Melynne helps us to celebrate it.”
—Missy Hart, pastor, peace and reconciliation consultant
“Reading this book helped me understand how we all are connected on a spiritual level regardless of our religious beliefs or lack of them.”
—Gloria Rivera-Lick, retired university professional
About the Author
Melynne Rust, a United Methodist minister, served as a university chaplain and a police chaplain prior to pursuing creative writing as a ministerial vocation. In her work, she explores the deep ethical and spiritual connections that live within our stories and have the potential to breathe new life into us. Melynne lives on a barrier island off the east coast of Florida, where she enjoys watching the full moon rise over the ocean.