It’s become one of the great ironies of my life that I feel compelled to share my experiences of faith. I’ve never been particularly comfortable with Jesus’ command, “Go ye into all the world and preach the gospel to every creature” (Mark 16:15, KJV). Christians who raise their hands toward the heavens at church services as they sing and those who are quick to tell me when I first meet them that Jesus is the most important thing in their lives have always made me squirm.
That phrase “preach the gospel” makes me flinch the way I did as a child when my father reached his hand forward to strike me. The word “preach” has a negative connotation for me because it calls to mind the fiery preachers of my childhood whose every sermon instilled the fear that I was one heartbeat away from descending into the depths of hell. The word “preacher” has such a negative tone to me that I never use it to refer to church leaders I respect, preferring instead the terms “pastor,” “reverend,” or “minister.” Even the word “gospel” is somewhat negative for me. My mother, a truly Christian woman who was never sure she would be admitted to heaven, often said scornfully of such preachers, “He thinks his word is gospel.” And that preacher was always a “he.” It is only as I write this that I realize I have never once thought of any female minister as a preacher.
After spending years as an English teacher, I’ve come to understand that much of the way we react to others’ words about faith has more to do with connotation than comprehension. When people talk about their faith, we who have been scarred by religion react to our own trigger words in such a way that it becomes impossible for us to hear anything else.
Just this week, President Obama found himself a victim of such trigger words when, out of a speech filled with Christian compassion, politicians pounced on a single paragraph that they knew would trigger the hatred of his opponents. When I finally had time to read the entire speech, I found myself wishing that the media had instead reported these words:
Whatever our beliefs, whatever our traditions, we must seek to be instruments of peace, bringing light where there is darkness, and sowing love where there is hatred….Each of us has a role in fulfilling our common, greater purpose — not merely to seek high position, but to plumb greater depths so that we may find the strength to love more fully. And this is perhaps our greatest challenge — to see our own reflection in each other; to be our brothers’ keepers and sisters’ keepers, and to keep faith with one another. As children of God, let’s make that our work, together.
Few people heard the president’s stories about the many people from across faith traditions who are working to make a difference in the world.
To be honest, I don’t know how we as a nation can get past our tendency to react first to our own trigger words. How do we listen to hear instead of to react?
I don’t have an answer to that question.
And so, for many years, I remained tight-lipped about my faith because I didn’t want to make anyone squirm. I became what I’ve sometimes heard laughingly referred to in my denomination as “the frozen chosen.” I approached my faith in public conversations from a purely intellectual level, discussing it only when asked and keeping my emotions and feelings to myself.
In recent years, though, I realize that in doing so, I have ceded the public conversation to those who would use Christianity as a wedge in our national dialogue. That realization began when my mother admitted to me a few years before her death, after fighting her way back from a stroke her doctors predicted she wouldn’t survive, that the reason she fought so hard was that she feared she was going to hell. I had an epiphany. She needed to hear the good news. She needed others to offer her the grace that she had offered to everyone who was ever fortunate enough to call her a friend.
In my last few years with her, we found many opportunities to talk about the Spirit that is in us all. We shared our doubts. We shared our prayers. We shared our joy. Even after all that, she told me that while she knew on an intellectual level that her fear of hell didn’t make sense, it was hard to get past what had been drummed into her during her childhood and young adulthood. When she had a second stroke that took away her ability to speak, I began to sing contemporary hymns to her when I visited—songs that she wouldn’t associate with the church of her childhood. Each time I finished a song, she smiled, pulled me to her, and kissed me repeatedly on my cheek. And in the four days as she lay dying, I like to think she heard me as I sang her to heaven.
Because my mother needed comfort to take leave of the world, I’ve found it easier to share my experience with others when they talk about the scars they bear from rigid faith traditions. And it always surprises me how many people across all religions need to talk about how to rid themselves of an angry, vengeful god—the one I’ve come to believe is a lower case g and not the Spirit of comfort and grace that is found in every religion, the Spirit that is both mother and father to us all.
Just this week, I’ve had the privilege of several conversations about the nature of God. One friend talked to me about how some people—and I suspect that she is one of those—struggle with the science of God. We had an interesting conversation about how, ultimately, faith comes from having had too many positive experiences with God to chalk up to coincidence.
Then my brother, who is struggling to stay clean after getting out of jail, talked with me at length about the good things that have been happening in his life. And while it makes me squirm to say this, I can’t help but believe that the prayers of my friends and my faith community have something to do with that.
Today, a relatively new friend called me to say that she just needed mothering and that she knew she could count on me to give it to her. Part of mothering, to me, has always been to share with my child what I believe in, so I did the same with my friend, even though I knew I risked making her squirm. She finds faith an interesting intellectual conversation, but since she lost her mom in young adulthood, I imagine it must be harder to believe in a Spirit of grace and love.
My image of God is constantly evolving, and I have a keen sense of how hard it is to know an unfathomable Mystery. I once envied those who were so certain they knew the mind of God. I don’t any longer. I try not to be overly concerned with what happened over 2000 years ago or what will happen when I die. What I do know, with utter certainty, is that one of the best ways to experience God is to encounter the Spirit in our fellow human beings. And then it becomes easier to encounter the Spirit within.
For all the times when I’ve experienced God—through people of all religions—I owe it to the world to get past my own squirming discomfort. What about you?