The Rev. Geoffrey Butcher, Priest-in-charge Trinity Episcopal Church, Russellville

Robert Bonazzi in one of his books uses the phrase, Dead-Again-Christians! He doesn't say what he means by that, but in the context of other statements it appears to be a sarcastic remark referring to the misguided self-righteousness of some Born-Again-Christians. A common experience of Christians like this is that they are not only self-centered but can be hard to live with. Their enthusiasm for their single-minded beliefs often blocks any ability to listen. Instead of engaging in a gentle conversation one finds oneself the victim of what a friend of mine calls "another scalp for Jesus." This, of course, is a grave distortion of what new life in Jesus is meant to be. A valid rebirth experience should involve a desire for love, peace, justice, forgiveness, and compassion; and a universal acceptance of all God's children.

One can also think of Dead-Again-Christians in other ways. My experience is that some who have come to faith with enthusiasm devote themselves to worship and service to others. But they have had a bad experience in the Christian community to which they were attached. In their own spiritual journey they have begun to doubt some of the teachings of that community. They were taught that every word in the Bible is literally true, even with the Bible's many contradictions, and that one must not violate any Biblical command. One is to affirm that God has outlined the rules of salvation in the Bible, and without satisfying those requirements one is destined for hell. In fact, as some pastors say, we are all depraved at birth and destined for hell until we make a declaration of allegiance to Jesus and are baptized. Teachings like this build fear, and God becomes a mean-spirited tyrant demanding complete obedience. Churches that teach this theology scare their members and crush the spiritual joys in tender souls. The result can be to become a dead again Christian.

There is an alternative theological way to look at this, beginning with Jesus. Jesus proclaimed the "good news of God." (Mark 1:14) Distortions of biblical teaching and practice grate against the God of love we have found in the person of Jesus. (1 John 4:16) My tradition doesn't preach that God's love is conditional; that is, that God will only love us if we obey everything written in the Bible. We teach of the generous love of God that knows no exceptions, that includes all of us with our differences. God doesn't limit God's love to native born citizens, to heterosexuals only, nor does God have a preference for white skin. Yet, some Dead-Again-Christians die again after being alive when ostracized by hostile communities that condemn them for being different. I grieve with those who have been abused in this way, and pray that their rejection can be turned into acceptance in a welcoming congregation.

As we think about the ministry of Jesus and those he called to be his disciples, I believe that it is our continuing vocation to welcome and nurture Dead-Again-Christians, to give them new life and love and to incorporate them into our life and love; and to release them from the torture of rejection and condemnation.

Some of you may know first-hand what it means to be a Dead-Again-Christian in this context, including the "execution" you or a loved one managed to survive. But some don't survive the rejection by Christians and take their lives, believing as they have been told that they are trash in God's sight. Their hopelessness comes to a tragic end - the result of hateful religion.

Our vocation is to reach out to those who suffer and to show them a different way; the way of unconditional love, tenderness, and hope -- to receive a rebirth of life with a welcoming embrace.