When my oldest brother was an infant, my parents decided to join a church so that he would have some kind of religion in his life. They have stayed members of the same church for nearly thirty years now, a much larger Baptist church than the ones they grew up in. We have never been an overly religious family, but throughout my childhood we maintained consistent Sunday morning attendance and each kid was baptized at some point by the same pastor. Growing up in this church, I always felt like an outsider looking in, like someone merely passing through to be viewed but never known. Words from the bible twisted up in my mind and I created a warped, terrifying view of the Christian God which I fled from at the earliest opportunity. This was the context under which I ventured away from the church house, leaving behind all those well dressed, holy people. After all, they and I were only there to view each other from our respective posts in the pew, and never to get to know each other as fellow travelers. Christians, as a result, became like inhabitants of an exhibit at the zoo, with placards of misinformation progressively written with my own hand in crayon, glittery pink gel pen and black sharpie. “Look here, the Christians, residents of Stupid Town. It says they feed on judgment and the weak, their natural habitat remains the brick and mortar houses of ridged doctrine and their population has dwindled as a result of the plague of hypocrisy.” This exhibit is boring. Let’s move on.
The whole time I had never realized I was segmenting a portion of the population as backwoods freaks of nature, characterized by exclusive teaching and cooky fundamentalist tradition, a separate mass of weirdo people, wholly different in their mental and spiritual makeup. They were huddled behind thick glass and I had no place amongst them nor any interest is knowing them as human beings. I stayed this way for about ten years.
Long story. Lots of events. Fast forward….Baylor. The pristine, manicured campus of one of the largest private Baptist universities in the country is where my feet landed on an August morning in 2011. A school where mission trips are endless and chapel is mandatory – a faith community in its finest threads. Again, the thick glass and the feeling of being a different type of weirdo amongst thousands of other super weirdos. I wasn’t like them and that was okay. Nonetheless, I considered myself a spiritual person and there was something to be said about entering a faith community. If power wasn’t felt person to person, the air surrounding campus felt infused with something divine, and that in itself helped me along many days when I felt too tired or bitter to walk. While in my first year at Baylor I got a view from a different angle of the exhibit I constructed so long ago. Still confined, I took more notes and did more research. Still in Stupid Town I see. Press on, brothers and sisters.
One of my biggest struggles has been reconciling Christian teaching with my innate universalist leaning. How do I believe in the resurrection and have Jewish friends at the same time? Is there a chapter and verse I haven’t found yet? John 14:6 arouses a multitude of questions. No one comes to the Father except through Him? But what about those left outside the boundaries of this faith – those in the netherworlds of Buddhism, Judaism, and those especially wild, crazy and “misguided” Hindus? That seems to me like a disproportionate and unfair amount of people to be cast needlessly and callously into the fires of Hell simply for not agreeing with one line in one religious text. That is, if Hell even exists. Personally, I think God is all the same Guy, no matter what particular organized religion happens to be talking about Him. Dare I say this openly in the church I grew up in? I lack the boldness of the saints to do it publicly, but I ask them in private around small kitchen tables. Press on, brothers and sisters.
This brings me to the meat of the story. I love people who hold a deep passion and belief in something, jaywalkers and serial killers excluded here. The capacity of the human heart and mind to hold a cemented conviction of some noteworthy cause is fascinating and hopeful. So when I was leaving Rollo’s the other day and ran smack into the two fellows I always see lugging a cross up and down Valley Mills Drive, I felt moved to roll down my window and ask them what the hell their story was. I called them over and they were all too thrilled to have to an opportunity to talk. “Why do you guys do this? Why walk with this cross up and down the street? Some of this seems obvious, but what is your personal reason for doing it?” And without missing a beat, the man launched into his tiny speech: “I was sitting in my house one day and I was praying and I said, ‘God, I just don’t feel like I have what those other people have. I’m sort of done with all of this I think. I don’t have any use for it.’ And then I saw something, like I was watching TV, and it was me on the cross. I was hanging there, and Jesus came and scooped me up like a little kid, took me down and held me in his arms just like he was a big dad. And He told me He loved me so much and that He died for me so that I didn’t have to. So I walk up and down the street hoping someone will ask me about it, just so I can have the chance to tell them that God loves them so, so, so much.” That was a rough paraphrase of what the man said. Of course by this point I was crying a little, mainly because I’m emotionally hyper-sensitive and also because I really believe he had that experience. He went on a little more about some general things about his life, gave me the contact information for his wife in case I ever wanted someone to talk to and invited me to a life group at his church. And of course he offered to pray for me which I gladly accepted, because I don’t care what God you pray to, I will always take a prayer. I thanked him for sharing his story with me and away the two men went, soldiering on down the road spreading their version of truth and light and hope. It was a magnificent thing to see two people so floored by their belief in SOMETHING — and they weren’t even waging war about it. I empathize with spiritual skeptics when they express bitterness about Christian hypocrisy, evil motives and the like. I have had and still have discussions centering around that topic – had one just yesterday, which prompted this writing. I won’t say that the cage I built for people like those men came tumbling down after they left, all my doubt cleared away, a rainbow appeared and my soul sang a song of clarity. No, no. None of those things happened. But I ripped a few of the bars off. A little more of the glass shattered. There wasn’t so much distance between the church and I, and this wasn’t because I found the magic scripture to cure the doubt/doctrine blues. It was because I had taken a small amount of time to ask this cross totin’ man about his story. He wasn’t just someone in the pew next to me. He wasn’t just some deacon somewhere. He was just another human being, compelled to act on his faith and I had talked to him. Turns out, they’re not all the same. The impressions I held were self-constructed, always had been, and even though I knew it long before this encounter, I felt it again after a long absence. I knew a few cool, churchy people once before. They invited me into their home when I was all knocked up and fed me a few times, but I felt awkward in their group (my baby bump was not a result of immaculate conception). That isn’t their fault of course. And they were the first to dispel the rumor that all people of faith were ridged wet blankets. Can you believe they had senses of humor and one of them even said “ass” one time? I thought that was like, against the rules or something. I still think of them fondly.
I keep my spiritual walk fairly personal, talking about it with only a few friends and the entire Internet occasionally. I identify as a Christian in some regards, disagree with other things, but for the most part I take a universalist approach. If when I die I’m sent to a sort of Half-Hell, I’ll write you guys a postcard and tell you I was all wrong. Until then, I’ll keep an open mind and just stick to doing the next right thing, whatever that is. And I will fail often and remember I’m human. I will say more prayers and try again. Maybe I’ll sit cross legged and meditate for a few months, maybe I’ll take a keener interest in nature, maybe I’ll attend a church service or two. But no matter what, I’ll be digging deeper into this idea that the universe is more than physical matter, there is a divine flow through me and all things and my job isn’t to figure out what or who is right, but to DO what is right while I’m here. That seems to be easier, and probably what the Spirit of the Universe wants me to do anyway. I think most all religious teachings can agree on that. And my questions will persist and in the search for the answers I’m sure I will grow into a more wholesome human being (…at least I hope I do. I’d hate to expend all that intellectual energy only to come up empty handed. That would sure be a waste, something that would really piss my rotting corpse off.). The big epiphany that may not mean anything to you, dear reader, is that I realized a little more the significance of horizontal spirituality — the concept that through interpersonal communication we learn more about and grow more in a holy relationship with that supernatural Thing that exists outside the world’s understanding. Since you guys are the only ones I ever really see anyway, it’s nice to know we can all learn from each other. Press on, good brothers and sisters, travel well, do good work and I’ll catch you on the flip side, wherever the hell that is.