Rewriting Faith: How a Pastor Came to See Things Anew
“If I can’t be who I am around a bunch of gay pilots, and be that same guy at Branches, then…” Ryan Miller pauses for a second, “I don’t like that. I want to be the same person.”
Ryan Miller is a pastor. On Sundays he speaks to his congregation, Branches, about finding God all around.
Ryan Miller is also a graphic designer who goes to gay pilot conventions with his wife to sell his work.
Where one of those facets of life begins and the other ends is a mystery, because to Miller, the handiwork of God is anywhere and everywhere.
Seated in a coffee shop - the location that has become the office of sorts for the Christian pastor in the millennial age - Ryan Miller sips on a pear soda from a glass bottle. There’s no pinky out pretension tied to espresso drinks with fancy names. He’s not cupping a hot drink of tea with both hands sipping timidly. He’s drinking a pear soda.
Ryan goes for what tastes good. What will satisfy. What he can unapologetically enjoy consuming. Not just the accepted norm he’s supposed to adhere to.
This sentiment is true both in regard to his drink preference at coffee shops and the way he practices his Christian faith as the lead pastor at Branches, an open-minded and inclusive church community located in Mead, Washington.
But like any story where some place of resolve has been found, the process and development of life speaks a lot to the current freedom. Before there’s the pear soda, there’s the transition from the norm.
Miller had a childhood characterized by a lot of movement. From Philadelphia to Texas to Haiti to Seattle and then to Spokane, he was exposed to a wide array of settings with being a pastor's kid growing up.
“I remember living in Haiti during my middle school years and seeing people drink out of gutters. Then from there moving to Seattle and going to this super expensive private school that gave us reduced tuition because of my dad’s job. That time in Seattle was rough,” Miller says.
But even with stark contrast in setting, he didn’t experience the general angst associated with being the child of spiritual authority.
“My dad was always a dad first and then a pastor. I didn’t go through a lot of the crap pastor's kids typically have to deal with. I wasn’t some super rebel or this super-Christian-nerd,” Miller says reflectively. “He (Miller’s dad) didn’t make me go to youth group. I hated youth group. The youth group leader was super conservative. At it, I was seen as the rebel pastor kid growing up and I wasn’t even a rebel.”
Miller recalls the church life of his youth as rather confusing due to it being clothed in classical Christian conservatism. His dad had a Porsche he purchased for $1,800. The congregation was uneasy about their pastor having a Porsche so his dad was passively pushed to buy a car for more money, $2,200, just so he didn’t have a Porsche.
“I was just upset because the Porsche was way more fun to drive,” Miller says as he laughs. “It’s things like that at churches that confused me from a young age.”
Miller spent a lot of his late teens and early twenties going about the motions of ordinary Christian faith. But he remembers starting to get unsettled by the whole prospect of being “in” or “out” when it came to hell.
“I started reading more things by people like Gandhi. The whole idea that he wasn’t going to heaven because he didn’t ‘accept Jesus into his heart’ didn’t sit right with me,” Miller says.
At this time, he and his wife, Heidi, were caught up in the dynamics of a conservative church community that was promoting the distribution of Y2K kits and fasting for George W. Bush to become president. Yet amidst the stereotypical conservative Christian dynamic, he was accepting ideas like evolution. Even when his pastor made a sermon about how doing something like that as being incapable of coexisting with a Christian faith.
“It was at this point, amidst the evolution debates and the hypocrisy we were encountering at the church, that I started to get mad. You start asking ‘what the hell is this’,” Miller says.
So, with a seed of angst and the longing for something new, Miller and his family transitioned to New Community, a church located near Gonzaga University.
“We went to New Community and that was a breath of fresh air. It was informal, which we liked. The theology wasn’t that much different from where we were at, but I’d say there was more freedom to think,” says Miller.
THE BELL RINGS, AND IT STRIKES A CHORD
It was about that time that a nerdy-looking pastor from Western Michigan named Rob Bell was beginning to ask tough questions that sparked the interest of many, Miller included.
“The reason I love Bell is the same that a lot of people do. He was in all of this,” Miller says
“Ryan and I went to go see Rob Bell back in 2009 for his Poets, Prophets and Preachers conference. I remember it rocked his world,” says Kent McDonald, friend to Miller and Whitworth Theology professor.
“He had been in a Bible study with my wife and I, and had been asking a lot of tough questions and really seeming to look for something new,” says McDonald.
“If I talked about the term ‘conversion experience’ like evangelicals do, I think it was at this conference where I felt that. Peter Rollins had just got done giving his ‘I Deny the Resurrection’ talk (see below) and there was this deep silence that filled the room,” says Miller. “Something happened there. It was cool. It was really cool. I came back that summer and remember sitting on the deck with Heidi and saying ‘I think I’m a Christian.’”
For those not familiar, the work of Rob Bell is about opening what has largely been a closed system within the context of Christianity. It’s about engaging in science while at the same time recognizing The Divine’s hand all around. To appeal to a counterpart of Bell, Peter Rollins who Miller touched on, it's about shifting your mind from seeing the phrase G.O.D.I.S.N.O.W.H.E.R.E as “God is now here” rather than “God is no where.”
REWRITING THE STORY
What Miller has happened upon is a reality that is almost as old as time - mystery. An awareness that this world and all its qualities are too vast and too expansive to understand. And trying to have all the time often leads to dissatisfaction.
“I was a pharisee for the longest time,” Miller says in regard to how his faith used to look.
But now he leads a group of people. A leadership that doesn’t give answers but instead poses questions. In order to promote the reality that what God is, is an endlessly fascinating insistence. Perhaps John Muir sums up this way of being best with the following quote,
Miller has discovered a way of God that isn’t requiring a fast for the most Evangelical candidate.
He has found the God who is just as present at gay pilot conventions as he is at a church on Sunday mornings.
A God that promotes drinking pear soda.
A God who promotes the practice of taking in that which yields joy and freedom as long as it isn’t at the expense of other's well-being.
Not a God that leads to us expecting the norm, but a God that is consistently surprising us.
Miller has begun to understand the language of the Divine rather than the language of a religion. He has begun to see what it truly means to be in the presence of the mystery of love.
“I’ve found a new way to say things like ‘God have mercy’ and now I mean it and it’s beautiful. It’s such a better way to live. To say things and know the meaning for yourself rather than the meaning they’re generally supposed to hold.”