To Take or To Receive? That Is The Question….

Anybody who thinks being Christian is easy has no idea what it means to be a Christian.

I’d describe myself as Christian-ish. I’ve found it impossible to completely separate myself from my upbringing despite my efforts, though these days I gag a little on the title “Christian”. It’s become a bumper sticker or an Internet meme: “Honk if you love Jesus”, or, “Let’s see how many people on Facebook believe in God”. Really??

There I go, judging again. See? It’s not easy.

Here’s the thing. People seem to think that following the Bible word for word is what it means to be Christian; follow the rules and learn the techniques and ye a Christian shall be. But I see the journey more the way Picasso described art: “Every child is an artist. The problem is how to remain an artist once we grow up.”

Christianity itself is an art and the whole point of art is to be able to represent in the simplest possible manner that which is incredibly complex. It was never meant to be a list of rules that we kept building on until we could say we’re an expert at the rules. It was meant to be the chipping away of an edifice so that eventually we become the barest essence of ourselves. Nothingness representing everythingness. Painting like a child. Lines on a paper with a bunch of scribbling in the background.

But maybe that’s just my take on it and that’s the complexity of Christianity. Jesus wanted each of us to get out of the box, step out of the boat, leave our comfort zones. He wasn’t saying “do exactly as I do or you will go the Hell”. Nope, he wanted us to stop being fearful of damnation so that we could experience our own divinity. He wanted us to find the child artist within.

Which brings me to the point of this post. I’ll use a strong word to describe how I feel when people (Christians) cheap out on Jesus and post things on the Internet that disparage those they see as faulty: liars, cheaters, stealers, fornicators, as though pointing a finger at them somehow grants the poster immunity. I hate seeing that stuff. I mean, who among us has never lied, cheated, stolen, or participated in relations we might have regretted later? Did we not experience our own journey of redemption?

The truth is, maybe we didn’t or just haven’t yet. Maybe we are still so stuck in our own self-condemnation that we can do little but shame others in order to bring them down to our level. That, to me, is the definition of Hell (I don’t really believe in Hell, but other people do, so I’m reframing it for their purposes) and as far from the point of Christianity as I can imagine.

One of the biggies on the list of Hell-memes I don’t like is the disparaging of the poor. Granted, we all know someone who has taken advantage of the system for their own gain. I once stole a roll of dimes off the desk of my friend’s father when I was in elementary school. I felt so guilty, I gave dimes to all my friends so they could buy Kool-pops at lunch time but that did little to assuage my guilt. I may have made a friend or two for a moment, but it was a short-term high, yet by committing that crime my own conscience was driven toward redemption and though I can’t say that was the last petty crime I committed in my youth nor the last time I justified my behavior by saying I was doing it for the greater good, it was something that taught me about the nature of being human and it allowed me to recognize and forgive that humanness in others.

Thus develops the healthy cycle of give and take. Or perhaps a better word than take is receive. How many of us are good at receiving? How many of us have been taught that to receive is to take? Maybe my stealing of those dimes was a manifestation of my feeling unworthy to ask, that I might receive. And so I took. We see that word a lot lately. “A nation of takers”, was uttered by one of our politicians in trying to justify cutting “entitlement” spending. Americans are moochers, he implied. We’re not following “the rules”. We’re not behaving like a Christian nation. But have we not all given for the sake of others that we might receive when our own time of need comes?

Who is watching when we offer our time to help someone in need or when we spare a dime to brighten someone’s day? We’ve developed organizations that keep track of our volunteer work so that the organization can receive credit from Caesar for their good works. We’ve created a system of accounting so that every bit of our giving is recognized. But is that what Jesus wanted us to do? Did he want us to go out and give in such a way as to be recognized by men? Even he understood that Caesar was ultimately responsible for the common good, for the upkeep of society, but it was in the quiet times, in the giving for the sake of giving, that he wanted us to just shut up and do it. It was none of Caesar’s business.

Christianity is hard because we want to be seen being Christian. We want to be recognized as virtuous and holy but that never really works, does it? The brighter the light from outside that shines on us, the longer the shadow it casts. Pretty soon, the shadow is bigger than we are. If the light is not glowing from within, it is not the light of divinity.

It’s become too easy for others to beat up on Christians. Too many are just asking for it so I find it hard to step in when a rumble starts and it makes me wonder if Jesus would have wanted to beat up a few of them too. But I can’t speak for him, and really, neither can anyone else.

In the Name of My Father

Haven’t been here for a long time. Not sure I want to be here now.

And that pretty much summed up my whole religious existence until I received an email yesterday from a man who wrote:

Recent events and reflection on the grand influence your Dad had in my life led me to your story presented within the Father’s Day tribute to Ray by Caroline Myss. Ray was, as you know, youth minister in the 1950s at Manhasset Congregational Church in NY. I was in that ‘Pilgrim Fellowship’ in the years 1950 through 1954. I’m  now 75 and have been constantly reminded through the years of his love, humor and compassion which he radiated to all. Your story brought it to the fore once again.

Rev. Ray Fenner

Though my dad died 20 years ago in April of 1992, I guess he is still alive. Every time I hear something like this, he is resurrected for me and I am cracked wide open.

I feel almost ashamed to have him return and see me like this, wounded and still reeling from the conservative version of the very religion that made the man who wrote this letter carry a memory of my father, who was then just a young man fresh out of seminary, so deep in his heart.

But it is not so much I who am wounded. It is my brothers and sisters of different faiths, skin colors, sexual orientations, economic statuses who, in the guise of love, are made to feel less than worthy of the affection of God. My dad spent his life trying to bring love to these people and I sometimes feel like his words and actions went unheard by those who most needed to heed them.

The wound I carry is the anger I feel toward others for this. Each time someone touches that tender place in me I feel like lashing out at them for reawakening my pain, and when they pick at the scab, the wound bleeds again and I feel unable to call on the “love, humor and compassion” my dad showed us was the essence of Jesus, to heal it.

The man in the letter asked: “If reasonable, I would like to know of the evolution of your life and especially how Ray’s presence touched it.”

Where to begin? Or more to the point, where to end?

Rev. Ray Fenner

Rev. Ray Fenner

How does one live in a world where the essence of Christianity, the real thing, was modeled for you every day yet seems too often to be missing now? How does one converse with others who have been indoctrinated by misguided preachers who told them it was okay to hate anyone “in the name of Jesus”? How does one not rage in the temple that my father helped build, by turning over the tables of the hypocrites and false prophets for creating a mockery of it?

Where, indeed, would I begin….

Maybe with my desire from a young age to follow in his footsteps, when I heard him advocate for me to play Little League baseball on the boys-only team in a way that was gentle yet compelling?

Or with his response of unashamed grace when I came out to him when I was 20?

Or maybe with all the times he’d ride his motorcycle 50 miles round trip even after the doctor had forbid him from doing so, to watch me play softball with the “lesbian-only” team years later?

Or with the fact that nearly every woman on that team showed up at his memorial service when he died, feeling as though they’d lost their own father?

Every time I hear someone say that “Christianity is not a popularity contest” I have to wonder if they are saying that to cover their own pain at being lonely because they have shut so many off from their lives because of their “devotion to THE LORD”.

Based on that definition, my dad was either a terrible Christian or the greatest one who ever lived. Not a person who met him left his presence without being changed for the better and feeling a renewed sense of belonging.

And to think, on his deathbed some of his final words were, “I thought I was supposed to leave a mark…”

You did, Daddy… The man in this letter and thousands of others like him are that mark, and I only hope I can honor it by leaving the resentment behind and continuing to walk in the footsteps I started following when I was a little girl.

Gay & Christian — A Marriage?

What times we are living in!

When I came out 25 years ago, the world was a very different place. It wasn’t long after the Stonewall uprising, and the gay community was just beginning to move out of its embryonic stage and was growing up to be a viable entity. Then came the harsh reality of the adolescence of our journey — AIDS. Many have fallen in the struggle to establish a sense of integrity, and still many of us are seeking the strength of spiritual maturity that we have been denied.

My father, a minister, though kind and accepting of me and my friends, once referred to homosexuality as “delayed adolescence”. This must have been one of the theories of the day. My response to that was, because we were denied what, for us, was a normal adolescence, we were forced to start later. And because there was only an obscured path for us to follow, the going was slower as we haphazardly cut our way through the vines of prejudice and ignorance.

I don’t remember being told that homosexuality was a bad thing. It simply wasn’t talked about. Once the issue was brought forth, the discussions started. The “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” rule of our culture broke open and people were forced to look at us out in the open for the first time — and many folks didn’t like it.

I stopped going to church when I came out. The United Church of Christ had never told me that I was no longer acceptable, but something inside of me said so. I began to research the various typically quoted passages that declare me “an abomination” and I became frightened. Society told me I had made the choice to be this way. I try to think back to when I consciously made that decision, and I wonder, at what point did THEY make that decision? Were they once considering being gay and decided that it would be a bad idea?

Several years ago I stumbled across the Cathedral of Hope (UCC) in Dallas, TX. They have a wonderful website as well as Daily Devotionals that speak to all of us, gay or not, and invite us back into the Christian family. But not all of us have direct access to a physical community, yet we long to.

If you come across this blog and would like to participate in discussing how we can change this, I welcome your comments.

I’m fairly certain that Jesus wouldn’t have kicked us out of HIS temple…