Visiting the in-laws, I walk around their neighborhood, my son toddling a few steps ahead. It's Christmas in Florida, which means warm, and trips to the beach, and lots of walks to turn down the toddler who is running on high since we spent the last ten hours in the car. We come across a man playing basketball with his son in their driveway. They smile at us. "Merry Christmas," I tell him. "Merry Christmas," he replies. "Do you go to church around here?" No, not here.
I lie and tell him we've been to church with our neighbors. He asks me which one. I tell him it's across the street and we've only been once and I can't remember (and I don't know why I'm lying about this to a man I don't know).
"Do you believe in Jesus Christ our Lord and Savior?"
I guess, I mean, I believe he was a person, but I'm not sure about the rest.
"Which part don't you believe, the rose from the dead part, or the son of God part?"
I'm not ready to have this conversation.
"You must accept Jesus as the son of God to be saved. He's done amazing things in my life."
I'm glad it's helped you. Really. I'm not prepared to have this conversation. Have a nice day.
I scoop up my son and backtrack as quickly as I can without actually running. I sing a song so that I appear less awkward and freaked out by the conversation that just took place. I can feel him staring at my back. They wave at us as we turn the corner.
Back at home, our new neighbor asks us to church. I tell her my husband and I both grew up going, but haven't kept up with it. Thanks, but no thanks. It's almost the truth.
A good friend innocently gushes about loving The Lord and do I have any questions about Christianity, extending an official invite to talk about faith. And even though I sort of asked for it by sending her this poem
, it takes me weeks forever to come up with an answer.
Long before, with a gay but closeted boyfriend, I went to the Catholic church just so we could sing, because singing was something joyful we didn't want to stop whether or not the congregation thought we were saved.
In middle school, I went with a friend (the pastor's kid). Baptist this time. We put on a performance of Godspell in her church. I went on trips with her youth group. After school, I hung out with her and the Jesus freaks. I wore a WWJD bracelet. The youth pastor held a Bible study and asked me to come. When I asked what he thought happened to people who were born and died without ever hearing the story of Jesus, he said they went to Hell. No one disagreed. I never went back.
Before the Baptist was the Presbyterian. Sunday school for what felt like an eternity. Uncomfortable shoes and showing off your well-dressed, well-behaved, well-meaning children to the other nice folks who shook your hand at the appropriate times during the service and said Peace be with you. Palm Sundays. First communions. Youth led services. Bible study. Church sleep-overs where we stayed up all night playing music and games and who likes who. Our family sang for the congregation. My mother played the organ. No one could ever remember my name.
It was the same in my grandparents' church, Catholic, and clothed in ceremonial fire and common words and predictable refrains. Comfort. Ceremony. But also this sense that I didn't quite fit, that there was some secret doubt nestled in the folds of my ill-fitting clothes, buried in the dark and inappropriate caverns of my body, just waiting to fly up into their well-meaning faces if I opened my mouth and make an embarrassment out of my existence.
Before that, the Episcopal. Gilded and open, stenciled in richly colored stained glass, the rows of smooth, wooden pews like Viking ships waiting for unexpected seas. Leather-bound Bibles, their satin tongues draped lifeless and smooth on pages thinner than dried leaves. The sound of my mother playing the organ, this time huge and resonant and primal, shaking loose the bits of my heart I didn't know were breaking.
I don't want to talk about Jesus, because the conversation always ends the same. It's complicated. I don't know. I'm not ready.
I don't want to talk about Jesus because the story sometimes ends up being told as though truth and personal truth were the same thing. As though by our very existence we are damned and doomed without buying in to rules that might not make sense for our life. Like praying away the gay
, or damning the unborn
. I'd rather be broken and sentenced to the flame than belittled and berated and born again. Not that those all necessarily go together.
Often, it ends with something about acceptance, but feels more like a death sentence. Accept Him as your Lord and Savior, and be saved! But being saved usually means avoiding some fictional end-point, not being relieved from the suffering of the here and now, not being embraced for your doubts, or loved more for your transgressions. What it really means most of the time is more like believe or be damned.
I might call myself a Christian, but "do unto others" doesn't take into account the likelihood that my fiesta and your disco have different coupling codes, dress codes, area codes, and code words, and I'm allergic to prosthelytizing pigwigs
, and Christianity doesn't have a trademark on The Golden Rule
(and I'm not into an eye-for-an-eye either). Does that make any sense?
My problem isn't with Christianity, but with religion as a rule, as a rule-making, rule-enforcing entity that creates and sustains the myth of "other" when we all bleed
. And what if eternal damnation is really the here and now of this moment, and this moment, and this? Who is there to save me from a lifetime of eternally damning my own existence?
Or maybe I've just always gotten it wrong.
There's nothing wrong with believing you are loved. Nothing wrong in believing: you are not lost, you are not alone, you are not impermanent.
But I just don't. Maybe my heart is too broken to believe it. Maybe I'm just not built for religion, even though the rites, the ceremony, the communion, have power over me. Maybe I don't have to believe in Jesus for him to love me back. But even saying that feels incomplete. Feels like saying too much. Feels like granting ownership and dominion to someone or something that seems unreal.
Maybe it's more metaphor than I've been led to believe, in which case, I can buy in to the "we're all sinners" sentiment, and the idea of extending love and compassion to everyone who isn't rich, and sated, and sober. I can buy into the "you are loved" idea, even if I'm sometimes too blind to see it. I can buy into "eternal damnation," if eternity is all we've got and not some far off someday where all our good deeds get cashed in for a never-ending eternal jackpot. I don't think everything is a crapshoot, but it sure seems like a lot of it is. Do we all deserve forgiveness, or do we just need to forgive ourselves?
The thing is, I just don't know. And the conversation about Jesus seems to be all about knowing.
I guess what I mean to say is, it's not you. It's me. And thanks, anyway. I honor where you're at in your spiritual journey. I envy the succor your spirituality offers you, but I guess I'm just not able to accept the kind of help your Lord and Savior has to offer, although I sort of wish I was.