The first week of April has been the most emotionally important for me so far this year, and a time period I continue to compare to every day since. I spent that time walking in step with Christian Holy Week, arm in arm with my church family at The Church of the Holy Trinity, a new Anglican church in Chatham County. We traced Jesus’s last days on Earth as he entered Jerusalem on a donkey (Palm Sunday), and through days of reflection (think of Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane). On Thursday, we considered humility in a Maundy Thursday service, and in a somber Good Friday service we felt and heard the unnerving sound of nails being driven through bone and the mocking insults of soldiers, anticipating the light of the world being drawn out. We continued the next day, an Easter Vigil Saturday night waiting for the good news of Jesus’ resurrection (and the occasion of the light returning with sparklers!). The week concluded with a triumphant Easter Sunday, a crisp Spring morning celebrating Christ’s victory over death with baptisms and confirmations, even hot cross buns.
This week solidified what had consumed me in the past year (though I was unsure exactly what it meant; to me, and those around me), that what I identify with most currently is my daily walk as a faithful Christian. And when I jump into something, boy…I go all in! My reading schedule has been taken over completely with the Daily Office mode of reading the Bible, memorizing passages from the Book of Common Prayer, and books on the history of, or current events surrounding the Christian Church (Luke Timothy Johnson’s The Creed and Jim Belcher’s Deep Church: A Third Way Beyond Emerging and Traditional are the current books in rotation). I attend church with a clockwork regularity on Sunday (and most Thursdays), and get rather aggravated if I miss a week. More importantly I have tried to measure each of my thoughts and actions to how they relate to those they impact, my hope that I am acting out of love for those I encounter, not with hate, spite or envy. I pray daily. I also look ahead, to how I can make a difference in other’s people’s lives (instead of living only for my own). And what continues to amaze me, these activities, working in a food pantry, or with Scouts, or looking to be of help to people in my Church and community, bring me the most happiness.
Though I have been so encouraged, I have to admit I have been flying under the radar a bit with all of this, especially when it comes to my family, and friends, and people I come into contact with daily. And there’s no reason to ignore the elephant in the room; in this secular America, especially in an urban area the national magazines point to as a place (the Research Triangle Park) overrun with PhD’s and hipsters, being a smiling professor of the Christian faith is akin to being the uncoolest kid in high school.
I have heard it all, though it is usually directed at someone else. “Bible thumpers!” “Holy rollers!” “Watch out, he’s found Jesus! You don’t want to strike up a conversation with him anymore.” And just yesterday I heard of an exchange where a gentleman, discussing his musical tastes, said he had really liked the Avett Brothers, but did not listen to them anymore ever since he heard they had turned into a “Christian band.” (that conversion is news to me).
These verbal jabs are harmless, and frankly, funny to hear. What is worrisome and does hurt my feelings are the more pointed barbs. These flowed in abundance a month ago in the days surrounding the vote in North Carolina on Amendment One, an ill-conceived piece of political wrangling that succeeded best in dividing people along party and ideological lines. After a video of an autonomous Baptist preacher in Fayetteville advocating violence toward LGBT youth surfaced on national news outlets in the days before the vote, many of those campaigning to strike down the amendment’s passage found their “face” of the opposition (those supporting the amendment) to disparage. All Christians must be behind the amendment, and the image of “those people” conjured daily were clownish, ignorant hicks.
Though I hate to hear so much of that directed at something I am so passionate about, I do understand its easy to demonize what you don’t understand. As much as I have wanted to strike back verbally, I know it will feed into their stereotypes, and so I’ll pass. I also know (and hate to admit) that I have said some of these same things in the past, in a time in my life where I couldn’t have been further from the Christian faith. It would only be hypocritical of me to strike back, as if these thoughts had never entered my head.
But, I don’t want to be that guy no one wants to strike up a conversation with! Some of my friends and family have given me that hilarious “well, I am glad you believe in all that stuff, but I don’t believe at all, and so why I am trying to make you feel better here, my words and actions are just making it clear I think you are a nut” speech. Worse yet, others have just decided its best to let the elephant in the room keep sitting over in the corner, hoping it might go away of its own accord.
From what I understand the most popular blog posts operate as a “top ten list.” Ten points the author is trying to get across, to sell their version of weight loss, or sign you on as a client in their new “life coach” business. I figured I’d tackle a top ten list, listing 10 events or discoveries I have had in the past year that has helped me know the Father, Son and Holy Spirit is not a myth, but something very real I encounter daily. Though I think you are supposed to count the numbers down from 10 to 1 in a top ten list, and I made my top ten list in to a top seven list, I present these thoughts to you. Hopefully, if you know me and have been worried about me, these illustrations will set your mind at ease:
One (1). A simple Bible verse I memorized after hearing a sermon reflecting on it has calmed my nerves, and helps me live each day as I want to. I can be hard-headed, and quick to anger if I feel crossed, or wronged. An aggressive driver or panhandler would send my blood pressure rising. A person disparaging me or trying to get the best of me in business or in front of friends would find himself on my mental “list,” crossed out indefinitely from my help or care. My children or wife, testing me in some silly argument, could cut my nerves quick, leading me to fly off the handle. But, through the simple teaching found in St. Matthew 25: 35-40, “For I was hungry, and you gave me food…” I have been reminded that I might very well be encountering the face of Jesus in that person who had wronged me, or needed my help when I would not give it. There to see if I would first think of myself or the other. In Matthew 25:40 Jesus answers my questions directly, saying “And the King will answer them, ‘Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brothers, you did it to me.”
Now I patiently think before reacting to these situations, to the betterment of myself and for others. In fact, a grin usually spreads over my face in these settings, as it seems so funny, yet humbling, that Jesus might be acting through them, or at least there as a witness, to test me. I can see his constant presence in the face of my child, as I try to find a solution to our argument that is both right, but fair to their way of thinking. Instead of turning my face away from those who ask for money on the street, I smile, engage them, ask them questions. Maybe they just need to talk to someone that treats them like the human being they are for a moment. Many times I think they really do need the money, and I probably have a few dollars to give. And, my mental “list” is gone. The few people in the world who seem hell-bent on disparaging me, or tearing me down, bless them(!), for they act as a daily test I hope to respond to with a smile.
Two (2). The above photograph, made Maundy Thursday 2012. Maundy Thursday is a Christian holy day, always the Thursday before Easter. It remembers the Last Supper of Jesus Christ with his Apostles and his outward symbol of humility, in washing the feet of each Apostle, as described in the Canonical Gospels. Many churches incorporate a foot washing service in their programs on Maundy Thursday, where parishioners wash the feet of another in the Church. For many this seems a bit weird! But immersed in the evening, thinking of Christ’s words and actions at the Last Supper, getting on your knees in front of someone in your Church family to gently wash their feet, the feelings of shame or being uncomfortable melt away lightning fast, and feelings of compassion and empowerment fill you quickly. Many fought back tears (of joy!).
After the priest and lay leaders started the service we were invited to the front to participate if we wanted to. Thinking I’d be the only person in my family to participate, I stood up and walked toward the front, to sit in a chair to have my feet washed. It was only when I sat down that I noticed my son had followed me up to the front with the same excitement to participate (illuminated in his face). After my feet were washed I stood up, invited him to take a seat, and in a serious role reversal in the life of a father and son, gently washed my son’s feet with veneration. I to this day wonder what he was thinking about! But, I’ll take this picture as enough, our smiles at each other some sort of testament to our family life.
Three (3). The dichotomy between the popular depiction of Christians as uneducated as a way to explain their beliefs vs. the faithful Christians I encounter regularly. One of the stereotypes of the Christian believer is that their faith stems from their ignorance in all other matters, religion as explainer. Though I hate to use this example, one of the best illustrations was President Obama’s explanation of why working-class citizens in Pennsylvania did not seem to be interested in voting for him when polled in the months before the 2008 election. His answer was that since they did not understand what was going on in the U.S. economically, “they cling to guns or religion or antipathy to people who aren’t like them or anti-immigrant sentiment or anti-trade sentiment as a way to explain their frustrations.”
My experience with people I worship with weekly does not flesh out that characterization. To begin with, I have never seen anyone utilize a graduate degree (i.e. actually put into practice what they learned in a 3 year time span) more than an Anglican Priest. I can also list the occupations of my friends in church; lawyer, physician, teacher, programmer, scientist. That sounds a lot smarter than someone needing something to cling to in a time of ignorance. And that is the point so many people I admire seem to miss (as the President did in his speech). I am not a believer out of ignorance, or because I need something that seems permanent (tradition) to cling to. I am first a believer (John 20:29, “Blessed are those who have not seen, and yet have believed.”), and from that flows a bedrock of trust, love and grace I can fall back on when I need to, or just feel confident it is there. That is why I have such a big smile on my face, where many of those that are non believers I encounter are so cynical, morose or just plain upset with everything they encounter. I would be to if I had to find my grace in the secular world.
Four (4). Doughnuts. Yes, doughnuts. Every Sunday around 10:30am I get to live in a microcosm of an environment where people are encouraged to eat doughnuts and talk with each other. That’s it! And, you don’t even have to bring your own doughnuts (B.Y.O.D.!), they are just there! (brought by a family for that week). Kids are not even expected to talk (though they do), they just get to eat doughnuts and run around! There are glazed doughnuts, powdered doughnuts, chocolate covered, cinnamon. Krispy Kremes, Sweet 16, even Entennmanns. Maybe you live a much more exciting life than I do, but this is fun stuff!
I am kidding a bit here, but what I mean is this, I get time to talk with a bunch of people I care about, to see how they are doing. I am not rushing somewhere, or pre-occupied by my smartphone or child. I get a chance to relax, spend time with others, and have an actual conversation, which is so rare these days. And, if that wasn’t enough…doughnuts.
Five (5). The Peace. Each week in the Church service comes a time where the celebrant (Priest) greets us (the congregation) with “The Peace of the Lord be always with you.” We respond with “And also with you.” The celebrant then implores us to greet our neighbors in the seats near us with “Peace.” The bulletin reminds us this is not only a pleasant greeting to one another, but a “declaration of reality. Christ himself is our peace, and it is in him, through him and by him that we are reconciled to God and to one another.”
I need this weekly reminder. I am a worrier, and can hoist the weight of the world on my shoulders in a New York second. It is nice to know I need not worry, that peace will come. It is also such a refreshing feeling to greet one another with the word “Peace.” Peace to you, no matter what happened last week, or might occur in the coming week, peace to you.
Six (6). Community. I grew up in the Methodist denomination. My brother and I joked as teenagers and young men that the Methodist Church was all about “fellowship.” There was the “fellowship hall” we spent much time in (at chicken dinner fundraisers and youth group lock-ins), “fellowship retreats” where we got to know each other better through camping together or staying the weekend in a beach house, etc. Not ready to listen to everything said in Church pushed us to think of this “fellowship” only, and it seemed sort of funny at the time.
But fellowship is integral to who we are as Christians. One of my favorite passages from the Bible, adopted as a prayer in the Book of Common Prayer is from The Second Letter of Paul to the Corinthians 13:14, “The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, and the love of God, and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit, be with us all, evermore.”
And fellowship is community, and community is something we need more of. I hear the word “community” utilized mostly these days in terms of real estate (“Come live in the Pine State community, starting at the low $500’s.”) or online (Facebook community). I need more community that is not commoditized, and involves interacting with real human beings. The Christian Church (or a religious group of any type) has provided community for thousands of years, and still does. I am so glad I’m plugged into one.
Seven (7). The first time I visited the Church I now call home I was excited to participate in Holy Communion, something I was out of practice in. When the time came I bounded up front, followed by my two children who were excited to follow along. I figured they could stand with me as I took part in the Eucharist. But something else happened entirely that really sent me for a loop, in that the simple act of love without expecting anything in return I and my children experienced was something so lacking from 99.9% of my daily interactions with people. My children stood in front of me, in that safe space below my outstretched hands. As the Priest approached my turn, instead of ignoring the children he lowered himself on his knees (all with an alb and stole on), and in turn looked each of my children in the eyes, smiled, asked them (not me) their names, then asked them if he might pray for them. Put at ease, they both said “yes.” He then proceeded to say a small prayer for them, making a supplication they remain safe, know the love of their parents and friends, and the constant love for them by God.
This experience occurred a few years ago, a week before Christmas day. I was weary, from over-working to the point of exhaustion to carve out a few free days from work for the holidays, and had spent part of that afternoon ducking elbows from aggressive shoppers at the mall while buying too many presents. Every human transaction I encountered was one of “I’ll do something for you, and expect something in return.” Here was something radically different, a person getting down on his knees to let a child know they are loved, and expecting nothing from them, from me, or anyone else. This has taught me such a wonderful secret, the more you do for others expecting nothing in return, the more you will receive, ten-fold. That same priest receives hugs and smiles from my children almost every time they see him.
This simple gesture is what pulled me back in, to yearning to be a faithful, practicing Christian. And I get to experience it over and over again as a new family visits the Church, and our Priest kneels down and asks this new child if he might pray for them. It is such a beautiful sight, a stunning way of living in this current world. Trying to replicate a small part of God’s grace, and love, and fellowship, for people around you to experience. That is how I’d like to live my life, no matter if that way is the “uncoolest kid in high school,” or not.