Please note: This is not a post about books. I don’t usually do purely personal posts here, but I feel a need to get something off my chest, and this is one place where I can attempt to express myself. I appreciate your listening, if you choose to do so.
I am a Christian.
It’s a loaded word these days, and I don’t use it very often, because I don’t want people to get the wrong idea. I don’t want them to think that I require certain behaviors or beliefs or opinions from them, or that I imagine they need saving, or that I’m going to start speaking in tongues and singing Kum-Ba-Yah. So I walk my path in silence, and keep my head down, and don’t speak up.
But now, in this time when so much is being revealed, I feel a need to say what this statement means to me. It means this and only this: there was a time when I was thrown into an abyss, an emptiness, where I had nothing. All outer supports had left me, and I was confronted with myself, my real self, stripped of all illusions. I saw it, naked, ugly, and diseased, and I hated it. And yet, without it, I would have nothing at all. To go on, I would have to bear it.
And there, in this place, I felt a being, a presence. This presence did not swoop in like a Superman dressed in red, white, and blue, and “save” me. He (she? it?) waited until I perceived my naked self and said, of my own free will, “Yes, I will bear this.” Only then did he make himself known, saying (though there were no words in this place, you understand), “I will bear this with you.”
Then I could go on. Then I knew that all along, this being had watched me with surpassing care and yet refused to exert control over me. I knew, too, that this being would never leave or abandon me, as long as I did not abandon myself.
This was not just a gift, but a responsibility. I was responsible to take up the burden that only I could choose, for otherwise a part of creation would remain forever unfulfilled.
I’m not a very good Christian. I would say that along the path of following this being and being worthy of his (her? its?) promise I’ve taken approximately one-half of a step. My response was more or less “Oh, now I feel better, I can go back to my life the way it was.” Certainly I appreciated the support, and was grateful, and said so when it occurred to me and was convenient. But I didn’t quite get that in answer to that all-out, no-holds-barred, overwhelming declaration of love I might want to give something of the same nature in return – not to him, but to my fellow human beings, my fellow sufferers.
Now, that has to change. Personal comfort is not enough any more. I need to reach out, to speak out, to be more and do more. I need to communicate with those who understand me, and those who don’t. I need to find common ground where no ground seems to exist.
Where do we find this ground? Not in the outer trappings of sameness and commonality, I believe. Although I personally feel supported by the rituals and stories of Christianity, and find them a good way to prepare for and comprehend the experience I had, I see no reason why someone who grew up within another tradition, or no tradition at all, would not be able to have the same shattering encounter, though they might speak of it in different words and clothe it in different pictures.
In fact, insofar as I am a Christian, I am Jewish and Muslim and Hindu and Buddhist and atheist and agnostic and not sure what I am and not interested in religion at all.
Insofar as I am a Christian, I am Democrat and Republican and moderate and extremist and fundamentalist and libertarian and socialist and conservative and progressive and indifferent.
I am white and black and brown and yellow and pink and red and blue and purple. I am rich and poor and gay and straight and male and female and everything in between. I am Frederick Douglass and David Duke and Eleanor Roosevelt and Harriet Tubman and Newt Gingrich and Sarah Palin. I am Martin Luther King, Jr. and Richard Nixon and Abraham Lincoln and Charles Lindbergh and Christa McAuliffe and Elvis and Marilyn Monroe and Walt Disney and Steve Jobs and all the people who live out their lives without leaving a single mark on the world.
I am Hitler and Goering and Himmler, and I am the nameless dead. I am a pacifist and a murderer and an innocent bystander. I am pro-life and pro-choice and in favor of the death penalty and against killing under any circumstances. I am about to open fire on a school full of children, and I am ready to die to protect them.
I am a winner and a loser and this has made me angry and triumphant and sad and hopeful and despairing and confused and bored and inspired and baffled and glad and sorry and gleeful and forlorn.
If I cannot encompass all these contradictions and many more, then how can I claim a share of the love that encompasses all?
I’m not very good at being all these things at the same time, and that’s why I’m not a very good Christian. To get there, I still have to go through the eye of the needle, which is my puny, inadequate self. In spite of what I’ve experienced and what I know waits on the other side, I’m still afraid. I still fear that such an overwhelming experience will wipe me out, will make me into Nothing.
Sometimes I wish we could have a new name for those of us who have had this encounter, with the emptiness and the love, and who want to find a way through the Nothing. I think the old name is getting in the way, is preventing me from finding my people, and I need them. We all need each other, in this time of uncovering. Not to be a mass, or a mob, or a group soul, but to know we are united by our common perception of a being (or a presence or a principle, if you prefer) that has, purely out of love, left us free to choose to be ourselves.
I’ve always had trouble with those Gospel passages about names. “Hallowed be thy name.” “Believe in my name.” What does this mean? A holy puff of air? Believe in an assemblage of syllables?
Of course, it’s what’s behind the earthly name that is meant, not the sounds that change from tongue to tongue and that can become corrupted by misunderstanding. But what and who is in that place behind the words? What name can I call, when I want to identify the one I follow?
“Jesus” (healer) and “Christ” (the anointed one) are the Greek translations of the names given to him by the people who had waited many long years to be healed and led by him. They are good names, as long as we use them in that sense. But they also lend themselves to limitation, to imagining that only a certain privileged group is worthy of being touched by and belonging to him.
He spoke of himself, sometimes, as “the Son of Man,” a name that has no such limits. He came to show us our future, what the human being can become — any and every human being, not just one group or nation or race or creed or religion. His name is hidden in our name, in the many who may become, mysteriously, one.
In the name of the being whose only aim is for us to become free, if you have even the faintest inkling of or interest in what I’m saying, if you didn’t stop reading this post after the fourth word, talk to me. How do you keep going when the sea rises up to overwhelm you and the powers of the heavens are shaken? Where do you find the strength that enables you to endure, to live, to learn?
What is your name?