Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Come and See, Friends: Coming Out as a Christian, 1st Installment

...contemporary Christianity has lost its way. Christians don't wake up every morning thinking about how to become a more decent human being. Instead, they wake up trying to "work on their relationship with God" which very often has nothing to do with treating people better. How could such a confusion have occurred? How did we end up going so wrong? Richard Beck, "The Bait and Switch of Contemporary Christianity"

I am a Christian. Why is that so hard to say? Why do I have to clear my throat, stammer, and sit here at the computer, feeling slammed by the negative (to me) cultural associations with Christianity? 

Me and the Rev. Paula Robinson, All Saints' Day, 2008. 

"You are sealed by the Holy Spirit in Baptism and marked

as Christ's own for ever. Amen."

One reason I feel a catch in my throat is that my father is Jewish, and I identify as a secular Jew. Much to both my father and my Christian mother's dismay, in 2004, I began study to be a bat-mitzvah. But—I like to quip—a funny thing happened on the way to the bat-mitzvah, and I got baptized instead—which was not exactly on my to-do list. Though history shows the devastation that results from the faith's split, I take every opportunity to say that Christianity is a development of Judaism. Though many translations and teachings obscure the fact, the bible was written by Jews for Jews about Jews, as these essential verses from Matthew demonstrate:

Rabbi, which is the great commandment in the Torah? And Yeshua said to them, 
"You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart 
And with all your soul and with all your mind." 
This is the great and first commandment.
And the second is like it:  
"Love your neighbor like yourself." All the law 
And all the prophets hang on these two commandments. 

 Oy vey, have I got problems—first, there's the ancestral problem, then there's progressive problem: I am continually distressed by the way that Rabbi Jesus's words and message are distorted by others who call themselves Christians. One way of summarizing Richard Beck's complaint about contemporary Christianity would be to say that some Christians take to heart the first part of the great commandment of the Torah, but not the second, though the ethical imperative to love others is repeated throughout the bible. In that it can be seen as divisive, my last sentence is in itself a distortion, I am sad to say. God's Politics and Tikkun Daily are among my suggested blogs is because it makes me feel less—ah-hem—apologetic to be one many people of faith who works to heal the world. But that last sentence is not quite what I want to say.  Even people who strenuously disagree can come together to heal the world—take for example, Habitat for Humanity, which people support from across the political/religious spectrum—and for which we at Calvary Episcopal Church are holding a fund-raising chili supper, on Friday, January 27th, from 4:30-8:00 p.m. Okay, enough throat-clearing—end of apologia, preamble, handwringing—let me write about last Wednesday night at Calvary.
Christmas Greens at Calvary
 Every Wednesday night at 5:30, a small group of us regularly gathers for the Holy Eucharist, with anointing and prayers for healing. Just as our Sunday service, with music and singing, coffee and socializing, is a staple of my spiritual life, so, too, is Wednesday's short, quiet service. Usually the sermon is more informal, spoken from notes, and delivered mid-nave rather than from the pulpit. Since we are past Christmas, when Mary J and I settled in our usual pew, I noticed the garlands of greens have been taken down and missed breathing in their smellWe are in Epiphany, now, Ordinary Time, whose color is green: in place of white cloths are our needlepointed greens—Rejoice on the lectern, I am the vine, you are the branches on the altar frontal, and The Lord delights in you on the lectern. 
I am the vine, you are the branches
There is so much to love here: "ordinary time," the way the colors change with the calendar, the wood and stones and the stained glass. With every service my senses take in the familiar, and discover something new. Today looking up at our vaulted wooden ceiling, I discovered carved scroll on-lays in the corners of the trusses. I love to search around to remind myself of these descriptive words: nave, frontal, vaulted, scrolls, on-lays, trusses—what abundance for a poet.     

Father Knute is an excellent writer and rhetorician, so I "don't have to check my brains at the door," as Robin Williams jokes in his Top Ten Reasons to be an Episcopalian. Last Wednesday, he gave a simple sermon on the lessons. He pointed out that Nathaniel the skeptic comes to faith through a friend, as some of us do. When Phillip tells him that Jesus is the prophesied one, Nathaniel says, "Can anything good come out Nazareth?" Phillip replies, "Come and see." Father Knute told us about a college friend who came back from vacation changed and happier. When Knute asked why, the friend said he'd found Jesus. And Knute thought to himself, "Oh, no"—that's the kind of moment in a sermon that makes Episcopalians feel good, at least those who—like me—are reluctant converts. But his friend, like Phillip, managed to get him to "come and see," and now he's a priest. We chuckled when he said, "The word evangelism makes Episcopalians uncomfortable," which made some of us—me, for example—more comfortable. He ended the sermon by suggesting that we could invite a friend who'd never experienced "Christian fellowship" (another uncomfortable term for me) to our chili supper, "Invite a friend. Come and see."     
Ordinary Time
     I'm not doing a very good job of explaining why Father Knute's short and informal sermon was so powerful—maybe it was moving because it was unwritten, spoken between friends. He asked, "How did you come to faith? Did Jesus speak to you directly? Or was it through a friend?" Yes and yes. Well, I could fill a book with my faith journey (and would like to one day), but last Wednesday, my epiphany was the memory of an earlier one that came via a friend, Jan Fuller, fourteen years ago, Easter. At the time, Jan was the chaplain at Hollins University. I had a job interview there and stayed the weekend so our two families could spend some time together. I went to Jan's Easter sermon because I wanted to hear my friend preach. Much to my surprise, I cried all the way through service—the prayers, the hymns, and especially the sermon. 
     I couldn't figure out what had happened. I wasn't accustomed to people who talked about God, except abstractly or academically.  I was socialized to think that people like me didn't believe in God. I wasn't disrespectful of religious people. I just didn't imagine that faith was an option. Many years before Easter of 1998, when I was in college, my boyfriend and I were playing frisbee on the green, when a young man approached us with a clipboard. "Do you mind if I ask you a question for a survey I'm conducting?
     "Do you believe in God?"
     "Yes," my boyfriend replied. I was stunned. Could someone I loved and respected and even shared a bed with believe in God? 
     "Did you mean it?" I asked, when our statistician had gone.
     "Mean what?"
     "You believe in God?"
    When I returned to Lewisburg from my Hollins interview, I was at a garden gathering of some Bucknell colleagues and their families. My host I'll call Linda. Once when my father was visiting, he'd said something disparaging about faith, assuming, of course, that no one present was religious. "I'm very devout," she said. Confounded as I was, when I saw a way, I drew her aside. I confided, "You're one of the few people I know who won't think I'm crazy," and told her what had happened on Easter.  
     "Yes, I know. It's very powerful, " she said quietly, as if my story had happened to her, too, and to others.
     Perhaps if I'd stayed in Lewisburg, I would have continued my conversation with Linda, or if I'd gotten the job at Hollins, I'd have spoken with Jan or attended more services. But a couple months later, I moved to South Dakota, and a year after that to Las Vegas. I explained my Easter experience to myself metaphorically. I was in transition, sad to leave Bucknell where I'd taught for five years. I had a baby. Easter is about renewal and hope. The sermon had been about the spring, the flowers, seasons, the cycles of life. In 2008, having come to faith, I asked Jan to send me that sermon. There was nothing metaphorical about it, nothing about spring. No, the sermon, "A Life of Surprise," began with angels saving all the people when their church was struck by a tornado, just the kind of thing that would bring out the sneering skeptic in me. "My friends, Jesus is alive!"" I can now hear Jan proclaiming. "If Jesus is alive, he is not just a figure of the past, not merely a memory we can analyze and manipulate." Here's a bit more:

Rev. Dr. Jan Fuller
     It will be a life of surprise, if Jesus is alive and we want to be his friends. We already know that every real and lasting friendship means living with surprises. No friend is that predictable, that unchanging, that imprisoned except the dead. The same is true for Jesus. He is constant and surprising, alive and well, unbound and free, unlimited and lovely.
      We could act like he was dead and not subject ourselves to the roller coaster of friendship with him. Or we could embrace him alive, and turn in shock and surprise every time he calls out our name. Sometimes he’ll look like the gardener, sometimes the poor, sometimes a burning bush, sometimes a child, sometimes an ancient, the wind, the inner voice, the prophetic call, angels holding up threatening walls. It will all be surprise—joyous, challenging surprise.

Jan says that icky thing about about being friends with Jesus—and I cried "holy tears" all the way through the sermon? I liked Richard Beck's crotchety essay (see this post's epigraph) because it takes issue with people who focus on a friendship with God instead being a friend to others. Beck also says, "I truly want people to spend time working on their relationship with God. I just want them to do it by taking the time to care about the person standing right in front of them." Jan says the same thing in more beautiful ways when she says that Jesus will look like a gardner or the poor. And, looking back on Jesus as "a figure of the past" that I can analyze, so does the Christ:

This is my command,
That you love each other as I have loved you...
You are my friends if you do what I command you... I have called friends
Because all things I heard from my father
I have made known to you.

Franz Wright, in his essay, "Language as Sacrament in the New Testament,"writes that he finds this passage in John (differently translated) "staggering": "what we are now presented with is a universe in which we are not alone, but one which says, 'You are my friends.' Think of it." I do think of it. I think that the staggering part is that friendship with Jesus means loving as much as God, the whole universe manifested in each person. We are called to find the friend in everyone, no exceptions. I look at these words and I think they are abstract.
     Let me try again. On Wednesday nights, when we kneel at the communion rail and the celebrant presses oil on our foreheads, "I anoint you for healing," Mary J and I lay our hands on each other's shoulders. We are close friends. We know each other well. Something in Father Knute's sermon emboldened our little group, and made us free to love. When he anointed us, a man I don't know well, a regular on Wednesdays, came up behind us and laid a hand on each of our shoulders. Maybe that's embarrassing to some, old hat to others. I think it's healing, simple connection.
     Let me try again. When I lived in Greece for nineteen months, my then husband and I broke up. It was winter and I went to Serifos, the island where my family and I have lived summers since the 70s. Everyone asked, "Eise kala?" Are you well? They didn't ask for details—which was a relief—they just offered human comfort. One evening, I was in a bar, talking to the owner. I told him how grateful I was that people cared. "Eise diki mas," he said. You're one of ours. 
     I don't think you need to go to church or a synagogue or a mosque or any house of worship to be one of ours. You are one of ours. You are.
     So if you live in Columbia, consider coming to the chili supper and helping Habitat for Humanity. No one will invade your personal space, try to convert you, or lay a unwanted healing hand on you. You might find a friend or two, have a good talk, spiritual or not. You might be surprised. Come and see.
I am the vine, you are the branches. John 15:5


  1. Thank you for sharing this, Aliki. I love hearing stories of how the Lord draws people to himself, and I'm delighted to know a little of how He's working in your heart and mind. There's a song by a singer/songwriter named Phil Wickham that captures the essence of what it's been like for me to be pursued by Him, and I'd recommend it to you--it's called Divine Romance. Much love, Elizabeth

  2. The game changing encounter is always a mystery. In what measure are we seeking, in what measure are we sought? The persistent truth is that once it's happened it can't be undone. It can subsequently be ignored or embraced but never truly erased, becoming less an argument than a haunting for those who find themselves wrestling with the experience. Which will also inevitably happen. Love on the journey. xo

  3. Wow that's great! I love it! Christianity is so very, very, well... Jewish,... I think the biggest hiccup between the Jewish religion and Christianity happened when the Romans, through Constantin, decided to take control, and made Christianity the state religion, a highly political move... I think we Jews need to reclaim the essence
    We definitely need to visit...Love you, Lily

  4. This post gave me a good laugh. I'm still smiling. On my way to becoming a writer, I was ordained a priest in an Independent Catholic Church. Being a priest was not on my to-do list, let me tell you. But I am. And still. Along with all the other swirling hats.

    1. Aw, Janet! I just saw this post! Now we know each other! What a blessing! <3