An ex-christian reflects on Keith Green

The Keith I remember; photo from the Last Days Ministries website: Days Ministries

Keith has a special place in my heart. His first album came out when I was 17 and he then made six albums in the span of seven years, every one of which I bought, listened to on the 70’s version of repeat, and learned every word. I remember where I was when I heard he had been killed with two of his children and others from the ministry on July 28, 1982. Since this was before the days of the 24-hour news cycle, I didn’t actually learn about it until a few weeks later.

I decided to revisit Keith’s music today. Unlike some other christian musicians, Keith seemed to be absolutely earnest in his faith. He became a believer at age 21, and he died at age 28. His fervor was the faith of the young believer, passionate about this story of good news that changed his life so drastically.

I loved Keith and his music. I actually still do.

In some ways, nothing was different back then. People were still people; there was brokenness; there were many who professed to have “The Answer,” but *we* knew what the real answer was, didn’t we.

He knew how to write worship music that had meaning.

“Oh Lord, You’re beautiful, Your face is all I see, For when Your eyes are on this child, Your grace abounds in me. … I want to take Your Word and shine it all around But first help me just to live it, Lord, And when I’m doing well, help me to never seek a crown, For my reward is giving glory to You.” (Oh Lord, You’re Beautiful, 1980)

He inspired me to be better, to take care of people in need. But he also tapped into my shame in songs like Asleep in the Light, “How can you be so dead, when you’ve been so well fed? Jesus rose from the grave, and you! you can’t even get out of bed.” and My Eyes are Dry, “My eyes are dry, my faith is old, my heart is hard, my prayers are cold.” and How Can They Live Without Jesus, “For maybe they don’t understand it, or maybe they just haven’t heard, or maybe we’re not doin’ all we can, living up to His holy word.”

He spoke my heart in a lot of his songs, both in my natural desire to be a kind and compassionate person, and the pain in my heart which came from being in need and having Christians either hurt me because of their own brokenness, or hear me ask for something and say like Keith sang, “And you turn them away as you smile and say God bless you, be at peace and all heaven just weeps, ’cause Jesus came to your door and you’ve left Him out in the streets.”

I think the pinnacle of his music was The Prodigal Son Suite. Here are the lyrics. (I’d love it if readers took the time to listen to this beautiful song.)

There’s obviously a lot of water under the bridge between the years Keith was making music and where we are now. I’m sure there are developmental phases that I have gone through that have contributed to where I am now and I’ve retained some of what he inspired in me and have rejected some of what he spoke about me as a christian and a person.

I truly want to love people. Kindness and compassion are my jam. And I do it in the context of having struggled my entire life with believing I am enough.

Christianity told me I most certainly am not enough. See Romans 7:18, “For I know that nothing good dwells in me, that is, in my flesh. For I have the desire to do what is right, but not the ability to carry it out.” (ESV) Colossians 3:5 says, “Put to death therefore what is earthly in you: sexual immorality, impurity, passion, evil desire, and covetousness, which is idolatry.” (ESV). I know I have a few readers who are familiar with the Bible and who will want to explain how these verses do not mean what I think they mean. The point is that the Bible is about an external standard, through and through, and humans, because they are born with a sin nature, can never measure up. That’s the whole point of Jesus; he makes it possible for us to measure up.

I no longer accept this premise. What I loved about Keith is that what he cared about was living for and like Jesus as best as he could (as far as I could tell). But he was also subject to the shame and guilt which rose from not being enough like Jesus. Guilt and shame have not been productive in my life. Christianity did not bring forth a pure heart, a renewed mind, a willingness to hate my family in the name of god, no matter how hard i prayed, submitted, read the bible, went to bible study, and applied my will. Sure, you can say that’s owing to my failings. But I say no. Humans are human, and there are other explanations for our humanity besides the Bible.

The Bible was also written a long time ago and we have learned so much about the human brain, about parenting, about developmental psychology, about socialization. Explanations for things in biblical times were appropriate for then, but they are incomplete or even incorrect for now.

One of the most important realizations I have come to is that Jesus can die for our sins all day long and twice on saturday, and unless we forgive ourselves, we forgive ourselves, we are not able to really appropriate what it means to be forgiven. Unless we can believe that we are “fearfully and wonderfully made” or just magnificent by virtue of being human, we will continue to struggle with believing we are worth loving, that we are indeed good enough, just by being perfectly imperfect.

Life is a journey, and I want to be present for it. I’m learning. The present is what we have. Now. This moment. That’s it. This is the moment I want to focus on. And so right now I take the plunge and press publish, even if this piece is only at best perfectly imperfect, just like I am.

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