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Definition: My July Confession

Let the beauty we love be what we do. There are hundreds of ways to kneel and kiss the ground.

-Rumi, 13th century mystic

This year (and so this hodgepodge of confessions) is now past the halfway point. I wonder how it will be, to look back at this year’s journey and see the shape of it better, from the other side. At this point, a little past the middle, I see that this is about a slow letting go, about giving myself time to be at peace with a monumental shift.

Some ideas take months to name, years even. Slowly, they take on a definition, over late nights and angry outbursts, apologies and silence, wine-softened conversations and stolen moments to think while driving, books devoured and stories heard.

I wrote the sentence I am walking away from Christianity in January, just to see how the words felt. I looked at the screen and couldn’t say that I meant the words completely. So I saved them in a draft and wrote instead what was honest and true right then.

That sentence brings up enormous questions, the kind you can’t answer without the perspective that time brings. What does it mean, to leave Christianity? Which one? I left fundamentalist, apocalyptic, demon-exorcising, repent-or-burn Christianity a long time ago, moving on to a lighter, evangelical, more in-the-now version. It was a relief to focus more on feeding the hungry and teaching children that God loved them, and less on who might be going to hell or how the devil might be trying to trick me that day (let’s just take a moment to laugh about that one). More compassion, less fear-mongering. That worked for a season, but then came the culture wars, or at least my increasing awareness of them.

I was dismayed to realize that even though I thought I had left fundamentalism behind, it was alive and well in churches that looked and felt a little more progressive. This is the part that still breaks my heart. I couldn’t, in good conscience, stay. I sought a new home in a progressive mainline church, in liturgy, in bread and wine and ash. These folks, I found out, are comfortable with questions and silence, and have a long tradition of welcoming LGBT, agnostic, and other marginalized people that evangelicals don’t seem to know what to do with. The pastor was slow to make declarations, thoughtful, faithful to the old rhythms while cultivating a mind that matched the times we live in. For the first time in my life, I heard the words I don’t know in a sermon where they weren’t immediately followed with a platitude. Just I don’t know. I think, if I didn’t have all the baggage from the other forms of Christianity, that I could have stayed and served there. I would have loved to. It was a short, sweet season, followed by a necessary break from all things church-related. I had begun therapy by then, and with it the discovery that I was responding to my spiritual past in the same way that people respond to major trauma. To my brain, there was no difference. This work took all of my energy. The pastor and I exchanged emails, and he surprised me by saying that perhaps what I really needed was to take a break from church, maybe temporary, maybe not. There was no pressure to stay or go. In a completely non-patronizing way, I feel like he gave me permission to leave, gracefully.

Perhaps this was the most Christian thing to do, in the quaint old-fashioned sense of the term, used when someone takes care of a neighbor.

Something has become more and more clear: with each shift to a different type of Christianity, more of my black and white beliefs fell away, and the emotional intensity of my beliefs lessened. The good news, for me, was that I no longer had to believe in hell, that I didn’t have to divide humanity into categories based on one of many religions, that I could talk to my friends without the formerly ever-present agenda of evangelism, that I didn’t have to try to reconcile conflicting Bible passages and ideas of God’s nature anymore. It has been such a relief to shake these weights off, one by one.

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As a teenager, I read Lee Strobel’s The Case for Faith, which contains an account of his interview with Charles Templeton. Templeton was a co-evangelist and friend of Billy Graham who gradually believed less and less of what he had once preached fervently, until eventually he left Christianity altogether.

Strobel writes of his surprise when Templeton, an agnostic, then in his 80s,, breaks into tears while talking about great his love for Jesus:

I was taken aback. “You sound like you really care about him,” I said.

“Well, yes, he is the most important thing in my life,” came his reply. “I . . . I . . . I . . . ,” he stuttered, searching for the right word, ‘I know it may sound strange, but I have to say . . . I adore him!” . . .

” . . . Everything good I know, everything decent I know, everything pure I know, I learned from Jesus. Yes . . . yes. And tough! Just look at Jesus. He castigated people. He was angry. People don’t think of him that way, but they don’t read the Bible. He had a righteous anger. He cared for the oppressed and exploited. There’s no question that he had the highest moral standard, the least duplicity, the greatest compassion, of any human being in history. There have been many other wonderful people, but Jesus is Jesus….’

“Uh . . . but . . . no,’ he said slowly, ‘he’s the most . . .” He stopped, then started again. “In my view,” he declared, “he is the most important human being who has ever existed.”

That’s when Templeton uttered the words I never expected to hear from him. “And if I may put it this way,” he said as his voice began to crack, ‘I . . . miss . . . him!”

I remember sharing Strobel’s surprise when I read this. I get it now.

Does a loss of belief mean a person has a hard heart, or a lack of emotion? Does it mean a person forgets the world within a world that he inhabited for years and years? Does a person forget what she used to believe with all her heart? Does a person forget the words of the hymns she sung as a child, or the feeling of peacefulness after prayer, or the thousands of other memories accrued?

Of course not. It is all there, intertwined with first kisses and essays on Milton and The Periodic Table and how to play chess and the time she almost threw up on her prom date and skinned elbows and early morning band practice and the moment she gave birth to her first child and her husband sobbed.

It’s all part of who I am.

If anything, a loss of belief shows how soft a person has let his heart be. It comes on the heels of serious consideration, the agony of deconstruction, the exhausting task of trying to find a way to make it all work and make sense again, perhaps repeated over and over. For me, this process has taken the better part of ten years.

Templeton remained a full human being, religion or no religion, as do I, as do the many people who find themselves unable to believe what they once did. He had his grief and he had his conscience, and it seems to me like he chose to go where his conscience demanded.

There are incredible folks, dear friends I know in real life and people I only know from their written words, who have found a home in various streams of Christianity. I continue to watch them and read their words with great interest, even with the sense that this particular path isn’t for me anymore. I admire how they are trying to affect change from the inside, and applaud their creativity. I still care about how Christianity navigates its way through different seasons of thought. There are so many good, precious people, and I never want to forget that. I never want to reduce something as wide, varied and rich as Christianity to less than what it is and has the potential to be.

There are no sides–there is humanity and the quest to make things better for all. There is kindness, and there is cruelty. There is hunger and there is food. There is ignorance and there is education. There is the trap of poverty and the hope and struggle for ways of escape. When humanity moves forward, away from a stubborn insistence on our differences and toward a realization that we have to take care of each other, that is truly good news.

I admire the kind of Christianity that participates in this process.

I have much to learn from Christianity still, as well as other systems of faith. I remember many things with tenderness and gratitude.

But.

I sleep more soundly now, and pay greater attention to the world around me, and feel things I didn’t have space to feel before. I put trust in my intuition, and I’m more comfortable affirming myself and my children than before. I feel more connected to the rest of humanity. Doesn’t it make sense, that when you suspect this life may be all we have, that you savor it all the more, that you want to make the most of it, that it becomes of greatest importance that your people know of your great love for them?

There is sadness, but oh, there is relief.

I have to think more deeply and look more closely and feel more uncomfortable feelings. There are no pre-packaged explanations. There are unknowns, waiting to be known. I feel like I have to use a set of muscles that I didn’t even know existed until recently, and I notice that they are getting stronger.

Am I saying that I’m no longer a Christian? I suppose I am, in a plain and surface sense. But not to the extent that I no longer admire or learn from the life of Christ or the love of his followers. Not to the extent that I deny the part of my humanity that longs and aches and hopes for more. The part that wants to be connected to every living thing and see its purpose. The part that must kneel and kiss the ground, that must extend thanks to the great, wide out there. And most importantly, the part that recognizes that very same thing in my fellow human beings, whatever faith they practice, and longs to sit with them at one big table where there are enough seats for everyone.

That person? She has existed all along. I am only now discovering more of her.

(Your story, however it looks, is welcome here, in case you are of the mind to share it.)

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On Sacred Spaces: My February Confession

 I think that what we’re seeking is an experience of being alive, so that our life experiences on the purely physical plane will have resonances with our own innermost being and reality, so that we actually feel the rapture of being alive.”

-Joseph Campbell, The Power of Myth

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We, just the two of us, went to Italy. It was a feast for the senses–the language was music and the food was earthy and elegant. Interesting details were everywhere, from moss on stone in the Colosseum to Jesus’ face in a painting by Michelangelo being the exact same face on a Roman sculpture, to train station cafes that served sandwiches and wine, and boasted more elaborate espresso machines than you’d find in any Starbucks. People in Venice, leaning out of their windows, hanging sheets out to dry. Hopes for resurrection etched into the stone walls of winding catacombs. Empty wineglasses on windowsills outside canteens. A small piece of the arrow that is said to have pierced St. Sebastian. Plain whipped cream (the real stuff) lopped on top of melone gelato, cutting the sweetness perfectly. Tiny spoons for stirring sugar.

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We ate what we wanted and walked almost everywhere. We bought things to bring home: bottles of wine, limoncello, a stovetop espresso maker, a pair of babysoft gray suede shoes, biscotti, magnets depicting pieces of the Sistine Chapel. It’s not really possible to bring the spirit of a place home with you, but we all try.

After a few days, the churches and the exquisite art within started to seem almost common. They’re simply everywhere. Armed with a guidebook, we took in as much as we could without rushing and defeating the purpose of vacation.

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In Rome, we spent plenty of time admiring the scope of things as well as feeling uncomfortable with the scope of things. Both in the secular and religious realms, it all seems to be about excess and power, but my sensitivity is to the religious. (My Protestant is about to start showing, but no variation of religion is free from the love of power.) While the art is precious and the craftsmanship well-worthy of admiration, the places that house them hold the silent echoes of stolen riches and trampled innocents. Hollow, not hallowed. “Think of what they could do with all that money,” I vent to Ricky over coffee and pastries after touring St. Peter’s Basilica. “I bet Peter would be completely uncomfortable in there, embarrassed even.”

I imagine Peter grilling fish on the beach with his Savior, wrestling with the call of do you love me? then feed my sheep and wanting Him to stay forever. Alone, hanging upside down, dying in love for the Person who changed it all for him. How does a simple message of love turn into a power structure? Maybe his bones lie down under the enormous altar, but it’s that moment on the beach that matters. How do you contain that in a building? Even on vacation, I cannot escape this constant dialogue with religion and spirituality. It fascinates or wearies, depending on how much space I have for it.

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Last month, I wrote this:

It’s my default right now to view religion in general through a lens of harm caused and ignorance applauded. Christianity–this behemoth of goodness and evil, source of bread and poison, great beauty and so much ugliness–I’ve been so mad at it for so long.

I wish I could find a way back to that beach, too.

Surely there must be a space in this world, in our lives, for art and beauty and sacred spaces. And our various tribes understand those things differently. Give me a cathedral of pine trees and birdsong over marble and organ anyday, but I must understand if you would rather have the marble and the organ. I must try to imagine, if that is your beauty, what you would feel in a basilica such as St. Peter’s.

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As we were moving to leave, a Mass began, with hauntingly beautiful voices singing in Latin. It didn’t matter what they were singing; all could understand. They were singing devotion and longing. They were singing human things in a human place that speaks of all the humanly complicated intersections with divinity. The singing made it beautiful–not the gold or the carvings, the relics or the prestige. The singing–filling that huge empty space.

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Is feeling and seeing beauty what makes feel “the rapture of being alive”? Details of beauty were everywhere in Italy; they are everywhere here too. Aimee’s unbelievably long eyelashes, Nicky’s tight hugs, Silas’ warmth and humor, Ricky’s steadiness, and my own sensitive mind, looking for clues. The people we share our lives with, that fill the empty spaces. I’ve rejected a lot of things that were once precious to me, but I remain in wonder of things old and new. This is my baseline: wonder. Perhaps I can build upon it, but I can always burrow my way down to it.

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In the cathedrals of New York and Rome

There is a feeling that you should just go home

And spend a lifetime finding out just where that is

-Jump, Little Children

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The State of Things: My January Confession

“It’s hard to capture it in one word,” I say, chewing on my lip. This is an ongoing conversation with myself, with my husband, with a few friends who know this terrain well, and with her.

“Instead of one word, can you describe it with a group of words?” she presses, gently.

I try. Every other week, for almost a year now, I am in this room, paying attention to my state of being. It’s one of the best things I’ve ever done. We talk about a lot of things in this room–parenting, childhood, marriage, dreams and goals, grief, my evolution from fundamentalism to evangelicalism to progressive Christianity to whatever it is I’m doing now.

Humanist? Post-Christian? Atheist? Post-Evangelical? Progressive/Emergent? Naturalist? Person of Faith? Believer? Unbeliever? Spiritual? Agnostic? Recovering Fundamentalist?

I’d like to be on a path to greater clarity, if not certainty. To that end, here’s my confession for the month of January. I’ll be back in this space at the end of each month this year, doing my best to honestly evaluate where I am on this journey.

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I still believe that Sundays are for vulnerability and soul-searching. I still believe in sacred spaces, in a regular centering practice, in confession.

I find myself outside of the boundaries of Christianity, and I’m coming to terms with it. The ability to believe many things has simply left me, and this has been a source of both great relief and great pain.

It’s my default right now to view religion in general through a lens of harm caused and ignorance applauded. Christianity–this behemoth of goodness and evil, source of bread and poison, great beauty and so much ugliness–I’ve been so mad at it for so long. It’s been heavy for the better part of ten years. And yet, some of the most gorgeous people I’ve ever known (personally and historically) are/were devout Christians. This thing just isn’t simple. I feel steadier and healthier outside of it all, but it absolutely saves some people; it absolutely has made the world better in some cases.

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My faith was never bland or obligatory for me. It was the frame of reference for everything. I fell head over heels in love with Jesus somewhere around age three, and continued to do so for years and years. What was real? What is real now? I keep saying goodbye and then taking it back.

A Lutheran pastor I’ve spoken with here, who has encouraged me greatly in this journey, makes the point that there are two different Jesuses. There is the historical person, and there is the Christ figure, which is what people constructed (and what we continue to construct) from the historical person. I find some comfort in this idea–that I can continue to appreciate so many things about Jesus, even as my ideas about him have changed, and probably will continue to change. There is so much more to explore there. I can’t face it all at once, but there is this: all of the good things his life has represented to me remain. A lot of good remains. I choose to believe that the Jesus story matters in the greater human story. He remains beautiful to me.

It’s not lost on me that these words will cause pain. That makes me hesitant to share them, but then I think of the private messages I get sometimes, in response to what I post here. Me too. I feel the same way. I haven’t had to do this alone, and I don’t want anyone else to.

I’ve always felt refreshed on a spiritual level when I’ve spent some time alone in nature. Maybe it’s just that stillness is the goal, and nature encourages me to be still in a way that nothing else does. Before I had children, and there were Sundays I just couldn’t stand to go to church (I imagine my cognitive dissonance began many years before I was aware of it) I went out into nature by myself. That is an instinct I’m paying closer attention to now.

So what’s the plan? Now there’s a question. I have a husband with his own mind, on his own journey, and we have three amazing children to raise. Right now, what I want for them are lessons that are easily taught in church: generosity, kindness, humility, elevating The Other. Community, looking out for the needs of others. Love, honesty, self-control.

I want other things for them, too–values they may or may not get from church.  Reason, curiosity, critical thinking skills. The ability to go to their classes and simply listen without an agenda–to love learning for itself.  Open-ended questions, fresh perspectives. Wonder. Gentleness, understanding, joy. I don’t want them to ever think there’s only one source for good things. Good things abound if you don’t have to make everything line up a certain way.

I’ve thought of God in metaphorical terms for something close to a year, desperate to see universal connections. Now? I don’t know. The jury is out. I am still overcome with wonder and gratefulness on pretty much a daily basis. I still say my thank-yous out loud.

So this is the state of things. I’m thinking, more and more, that it’s all going to be okay.

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church.

This is probably a thing I’ll never be done talking about.

In the early, cold months of 2014, I drew back from my own life. I couldn’t bear managing things anymore. I’ve already talked about all that. I let go of heavy things, so very slowly, and just as slowly gained clarity about why I was so tired. I gave myself permission, at long last, to stay away from a Thing that causes me anguish and irritation–a Thing that does so much good, that has done good for me too, and that I have served with sincere love–but a Thing that is complicated and a vehicle for manipulation as well as those good things. Church. I went on a gray Easter Sunday and didn’t return again until two Sundays ago. Another gray, cold day.

I went for the ritual of it, for the beauty of spending a Sunday morning with my family, and thoroughly enjoyed that part of it. I went as an act of love for them. I wasn’t scared. I didn’t need to run away or cry in the bathroom or put on a Sunday face. I regarded what was said, found much of it to be incomplete, and went out the doors. It felt like a production, but a wholly sincere one. They think this is what we want, I suppose. I could keep doing that, keep going so that my children have a familiar place to gather each week, but don’t know if I should. There are good people there. There are good people out of there too, but they are harder to find–not gathered so easily.

I’ve missed the ritual of it. Here is the honest truth: I need something outside of myself to bring me to care like I should. As this lovely song says, we could use a guiding star.

It’s getting to where I can incorporate little snippets of Biblical wisdom into my children’s morality lessons. Generosity–if you give to the poor, you give to God. Kindness. Love. Servant-hood, estimating others highly regardless of social station. There is so much good there. I don’t immediately get knee-jerk angry when I open the good book, because of all the things I’ve worked to let go. My parents showed my what it is to give joyfully. I carry this with me.

I want my children to have the gift of faith. I don’t want it to be a heavy thing they feel obliged to carry. I know this weight–it makes you old while you are still young. It makes life seem like a survival trial rather than a gift.

Am I one of the nones? Perhaps. Or I’m one of the alls, because truth is simply true. No one has to bend over backwards to prove it.

I sleep heavy. I used to take such a long time to finally drift off. I’m not afraid of the dark and remnants of my childhood fears of demons lurking, harassing me because I was “doing things for God” have slipped mercifully away. I’m not afraid, and I’ve been afraid my whole life.

When I attend births, I feel like I’m in a holy space. This is what church used to be for me. Now: the trees, the wind, the water, the air–my church. Groups of people sharing life together, watching their babies play, eating good food, telling their stories. Whispering love to my husband. Watching my children grow into amazing and beautiful people, stumbling and flourishing. Watching the seasons come and go. Breathing easier than I ever have. Finding ways to make others breathe easier–I’m bad at this, at not burying my head in the sand, but the struggle is church.

I haven’t found it in myself to declare a label for all of these thoughts and feelings. Maybe 2015 will bring that ability. I don’t need to, for now. I have no desire to cause pain to others, but also no desire to cause pain to myself. I’d love to be understood, but I’ll settle for live and let live.

The brain is so strange and wonderful. What seems completely obvious to me now was not in any way merely a few years ago. I said to my brother, as we hashed out some things like you only can in the wee hours of the morning, that only three years ago I sincerely believed that people who hadn’t spoken a specific set of words were going to Hell when they died. We are capable of holding such conflicting thoughts at the same time. We laughed, we understood. We grew up in the same alien world, and now we’re trying to live in this one.

A fear-based belief system is just a house of cards pretending to be a fortress. It looks small and sad now, but it kept me up at night for how many years–twenty-five? twenty-eight? It’s hard to say. It was everything. All-powerful.

That moment–sitting on a kitchen counter, finding commonality with my little brother, just knowing that we both know–church.

In 2015, I want to seek out more of this. I hope to find it.

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third parent

You were Spirit-filled women wearing soft perfume and pantyhose, shoes kicked off and crying freely, arms raised, mascara smeared, interceding for husbands and children. You listened and gave advice, and encouraged me to get up and sing into the microphone. You praised. You nurtured. Full of spirit, indeed.

You taught me the sacred stories, Sunday after Sunday. You told us the story of Noah and the Ark and we sat, our full attention on your facial expressions. You taught us to sing, to harmonize, to act, to tell stories through music and motion. You gave us a space to fall down and get up again.

We gathered for potluck meals after hours-long Sunday services. It was like eating around a fire after a hunt, I imagine– everyone so hungry for food and so full of human companionship, tapping into an ancient need.

You were men in three piece suits with shiny cufflinks, giving sermons about the End Times and insights about Old Testament prophecy, selling books afterward. Once, as I sat in Sunday evening service on the second row, you called me out for not paying attention. With a red face I raised my notebook to show you I was taking careful notes of your words. You apologized and moved on. I wanted your approval.

You gave up your Saturday mornings to do car washes with us, raising money for camps and conventions, buying us pizza and soda, and you may not have known but known we looked forward to it all week: your attention.

We snuck out of Wednesday night service and went down the hill behind the church, for no real reason other than we could. You found us and brought us back inside. You let us throw pies in your face and tolerated our immature sense of humor without ever letting us know it. You cried with those of us who missed parents, who came to church looking to fill holes in our lives. You made us believe we would change the world with our prayer, our witness, our zeal.

You took us to the river, to Mexico, to Africa. We held ourselves down on the Land Rover seats, driving along bumpy red dirt roads, and I heard you say if one of those fags ever tried to touch me…; my face went hot and I don’t remember the other part of that conditional. I learned that you could be small and scared and pitiable.

One of you sang in the choir and took out your rage on your wife at home. More of you practiced compassion in your families. You drove miles to pick me up, let me stop by your house after school, gave me cold water and cookies, told me stories and gave me important clues about this life.

You gave me a car. You looked me in the eye. You teased me for the impossible crush that lasted all through my teenage years. You drove us out for a concert and almost hit a horse on the way home, and we rolled toward the front of the van, waking rudely from our sleep on the floor. 

In college, when I tried to sort out the complications of falling in love, you told me that if I married that boy, God would take away my calling. I followed my heart (thankfully) but spent the first year of my marriage trying to figure out what that even meant–to lose one’s calling. I had once thought you wise on a spiritual level–discerning–and it took so much time to see what it was for what it was.

You told me stories of the day I was born, how I wore a onesie that said The Apple of His Eye and you sang skidamarink a-dink, a-dink, skidamarink a-doo, I love you whenever you saw me, even at my Dad’s funeral all those years later.

I remember thinking you were God when you stood behind the pulpit. All through my childhood, I saw your face when I prayed. 

I’ve been thinking lately about this village; about what it meant. We, the children, were given heavy things to carry. We were given great amounts of love and affirmation. We were given falsehoods with the very best of intentions, and I’m still unpacking them. 

You were my third parent: teaching me how the world works. How much love we’re capable of, how little we really know.

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The Peace

It’s a special day on the blog–I get to share some of my husband’s words. Ricky is my favorite person to talk to, because he tells the sometimes-uncomfortable truth and asks the Good Questions (the ones we all want to ask) and looks people in the eye, and isn’t afraid to introduce the elephants in the room. I could write a long list of the things I like about him (let me count the ways) but here’s my favorite thing: when he asks, “How are you doing?”, he’s really asking. I’m so grateful for him, and the way our conversations have helped me move forward many times. And, since what he’s written about for today’s post is a journey we’ve shared to a large extent, it’s quite meaningful to me. I hope you enjoy it, too.

It was late summer in southern New Mexico.  I walked across the parking lot, from the door of my car to the door of St. Andrew’s Episcopal Church in downtown Las Cruces.  As I entered, there wasn’t a familiar face; after all, I was only there because some out-of-town friends, James and Deborah and two-year-old Edmund, invited me.  I didn’t normally set foot in mainline churches, and I’m sure asking for instructions didn’t help me blend in either.  As the service progressed my friends arrived, I fumbled through the scripted service, and I smiled as sippy cups and hard plastic toys rolled on the ground.  We sat in the back near an African family with three kids.

And then came the Sharing of the Peace, the part of the service when people shake each other’s hands and say something like, “Peace be with you.”  First, James turned to me and smiled over some of God’s Peace.  Then, Deborah and Edmund managed to flash some quick Peace before diving for the sippy cup again.  And then strangers walked over to me and initiated the transaction of passing me the Peace.  I tried to reciprocate, but I found it difficult.  I couldn’t seem to manage passing Peace to anyone.  I faked it.  I didn’t have any to give.  Instead, I clumsily accepted the orbs of Peace handed to me.  I cried.  I didn’t know why.

I think I do now, though.  I needed people who didn’t know me, and who looked nothing like me, to be willing to accept me and wish me well.  I needed to witness that that still happens, because it had been so long since I had.

Every time in recent history that the American Church has assembled itself on the national stage, it hasn’t been to call attention to what makes Christianity beautiful—grace and genuine good will.  It has been to dutifully emphasize the boundary which defines who’s in and who’s not, to clear away the smudges in the line and remind us that, really, not all are welcome or deserving to participate in our community.  It steals from the playbook handed to middle-schoolers on how to efficiently create cliques, and it squeezes out those who are just different enough: single unwed pregnant women, thinkers, homosexuals, Democrats.  It fights to maintain a dominant “Christian” culture, enforcing compliance through the legal system.  It fights to be in power.  This is not what I understand Christianity should be.

Jesus gives us some good words for this:

“Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in your brother’s eye and pay no attention to the plank in your own eye? How can you say to your brother, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ when all the time there is a plank in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the plank out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to remove the speck from your brother’s eye.” (Matthew 7:3-5)

How can we see clearly enough to pass judgment on the single, unwed mom if we haven’t felt the weight of responsibility of figuring out how to maintain a full-time job and give birth to a baby, all without a partner to lean on?  Or how do we point fingers at the young man trying to figure out if he is gay if we’ve never had to choose between living a lie and being cast into exile?  Living life in community with people who are different than we are is messy and complicated, but the Bible says we are supposed to try to put up with one another (Ephesians 4:2).

Since moving to Maryland I’ve tried to pass Peace to new people I meet.  I smile at them and look them in the eye; I try to remember something about them and wish them goodwill.  Usually, they’ll pass some Peace back to me too.  I like to think it is a welcome interruption given the faster pace of life.  The Lutheran church my family and I have started attending is simple and allows for different sorts of people to make up its membership.  My kids are loud and think it is silly to spend the first 15 minutes of the service with the rest of the adults, but as the adults walk around and pass Peace to one another, they also pass Peace to my kids.  That is precious to me, and if there is ever a time when my kids need some help finding Peace, I think will be precious to them, too.

Ricky is an engineer and appreciates all things technical.  He likes playing music, watching his kids sample new foods, and an occasional, lively political debate.  He lives in Columbia, MD with his wife and three beautiful children.

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Like a Child

Today I’m grateful to be sharing a guest post from James Stambaugh. James and his wife, Deborah, are dear friends of ours and some of my favorite people  to talk with about theology and its tangible effect on our lives, usually while drinking something interesting. We don’t see them nearly enough, and as I always learn something from our conversations, it’s a treat to hear James’ thoughts on the decision to baptize their son Edmund as an infant, and the ways children teach us how to approach God. 

Baptizing my son as an infant was a difficult choice.  I mentally accented to the doctrine.  I read the pertinent theology.  My wife and I worked through the information given to us by our parish, and met with the Christian education director.  We set a date to have Edmund James baptized, and chose godparents.  But there were complications.  These decisions are rarely only about theology.  Christian practice is messy.

Psychologically, it was hard to overcome twenty years of being told that infant baptism was wrong; that a person must choose for his or herself to be baptized.  I was baptized when I was nine after making a public profession of faith in Christ.  I don’t exactly remember choosing anything.  I remember it though, cold water on a January night, and value the memory.

The Anglican tradition, which I came to in young adulthood, affirms the value and the choice of baptism for older children and adults.  Since I began attending the Episcopal church I have seen many persons “of riper years”—as an old Prayer Book called it—get baptized, and it is always beautiful.  But, infant baptism is the normative practice of our church.  More by intuition than by dogmatics, I felt it was right for my son.

Some of our close family warned us before Edmund was born never to let them know if we baptized him as an infant.  They acted as if just knowing of an infant baptism in the family would cause too much shame and disappointment to bear.

My wife and I were faced with a decision between what we felt was right and what was normative in our faith community on the one hand, and what we were taught growing up and what our family wanted us to do on the other.

In the end, we went with our gut.  We brought our child to the font.  We promised in front of God and everyone to bring him up in the Christian faith, and help him to grow into the full stature of Christ.  We spoke the ancient words of the baptismal covenant, and our voices were strengthened by the voices of the whole congregation.  The priest poured water on his head, and anointed him with oil.  We received the light of Christ: a candle burning with Pascal fire.

That was two years ago.  Edmund is almost three.  Most Sundays we take him out of the nursery in time for Holy Communion.  He calls it “Jesus bread time.”

He points to the colors in the stained glass, listens to the rumbling organ, and says parts of the Lord’s Prayer—mostly just “Our Father” over and over.   Then we line up to go to the altar rail.  When he was younger we would take the wafer for him, break it up, make sure it all ended up in his mouth, but we don’t worry too much about that anymore.

Now Edmund kneels by himself.  His chin rests on the top of the wooden rail polished by a century of communicants.  He reaches up, palms open; absolutely committed to expectation.  He wastes no time shoving the whole wafer in his mouth.  He smiles as it melts on his tongue.  Once he grabbed the priest’s vestment as he walked past, and asked, “more please.”  The priest gave it to him.  Another time he begged a piece from the man kneeling next to him.  This man broke his wafer in half and gave it to my son.  As a member of our congregation, that gentleman also made a promise the day Edmund was baptized, and he took it seriously.

Edmund feasts on the Sacrament with unadulterated joy.  When he breaks free of my grasp and runs to the rail giggling, I see what Jesus meant when he told us to approach His kingdom like a child, with innocence, joy, and expectation; with careless laughter.  At the rail, receiving the Eucharist with Edmund, I know that baptizing him was right.  He is a member of the Body of Christ and participates in the life of the Church in his own, completely legitimate way.  And who cares that he approaches donuts in the fellowship hall the same way? [1]

Edmund is teaching me that children intuitively understand the Incarnation.  They make no distinction between sacred and profane, between spiritual and material.  They worship just as truly with sticky hands full of cake as with prayer book and hymnal (though the combination of all three is not recommended).

Some will still argue that children cannot worship, or be baptized, or take the Eucharist because they don’t know what they’re doing.  But do any of us really know what we’re doing?  Regardless of how ripe in years we are when it happens, we are all infants at baptism.  The extent to which we think we are spiritually mature is usually inversely related to how mature we really are.  If we do not approach the Sacraments as a mystery—with the spiritual discipline of expectant unknowing—we are in grave danger.  Children don’t have to worry about that.  God grant me grace to be like them.

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James is in the process of becoming an Episcopal priest and will be attending seminary in the fall of 2014.  Right now, he lives in Albuquerque, NM with his beautiful wife and darling children.  He occasionally blogs at cynoceph.wordpress.com.

[1] Who can deny the sacramentality of coffee hour?

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