What’s So Good About This Friday?

Michelangelo-pietaA good reminder not just for Good Friday, but for every Friday.

The first moment I had a clue what the Cross was for, I was in my usual spot in Mrs. Weaver’s English classroom at Cochise Community College: one row back, two spaces from the left. It was Irish Literature class, and we were talking about the gods of Irish mythology, and Mrs. Weaver, knowing my nerdy interest in Ancient Greece, had just called on me to back her up on a scene from Homer’s Iliad.

“Now, Rachel, in the Iliad, the gods don’t concern themselves much with the fate of human beings, do they?”

“No,” I responded immediately. “In fact, at one point, Zeus is feeling sad because he knows his son is about to die in battle, but Hera talks him out of it. She says mortals are doomed to die anyway and he’s better off not getting emotionally involved with them.”

“Right,” she said with satisfaction, turning back to the class. “So you see, this myth is similar in that…”

The discussion went on, but I remember staring at the floor to the left of my desk, daydreaming as I often did in class at seventeen. Huh. Interesting that in both these cultures, there’s a story about why the gods don’t care about us humans. Actually, why would you ever naturally believe a god cared about you? What could a god, who is immortal and can’t feel pain, know about your life? Why would they ever want to know?

And then it hit me. I’d never understood about Jesus. Growing up in the Church, saying all the creeds, listening to the Gospel over and over, my religious education classes, none of it had made the death of Jesus make any sense. God loved me? Sure, okay. Jesus, both divine and human, came to us to reveal how to live? That sounded like a fine plan. But every year when Easter came around, I would wonder, Why did he have to die like that? Why couldn’t he just have gone back to be with God, or even died like a normal person? Why the beatings, the blood, the torturous thirst, the getting nailed to things?

I didn’t get it. And now, somehow, I did get it a little bit: if you believed that Jesus was God (which was still to me just hypothetical), then you could no longer say, ever, that God didn’t care about or understand your suffering. Surely crucifixion was not only one of the most horrifically painful deaths ever, but also one of the most humiliating and dehumanizing. And if God was Jesus, and Jesus went through all that, it proved once and for all that God knew all about suffering. Surely God had empathy for your pain, compassion even for the most horrible experience you would ever go through.  Surely, if you believed that, it would give you a powerful sense that God was with you in your darkest moments.

Now, this is not how the impact of Jesus’ death is usually explained. I’ve discovered many more dimensions of it since then, and no doubt I will discover many more. But that was the thing that grabbed me first, stunned me and spun me around and made me get it after all my years of half-sleeping through sermons. I almost got choked up thinking about it: a god would do that for me? So that I could know I wasn’t alone? So I could know the Creator of the world was not hostile, or even neutral, but loved me enough to get down on my level, wade through all that blood and mud and grime, suffer all those filthy looks and jeers and whispers, to prove it wasn’t the end of the world? I pictured Jesus like a big brother, jumping before me into a lake that looked freezing, murky, teeming with perils, his head rising again to the surface to say, “Come on in. I’ll be in here with you.”

It wasn’t the day I decided to follow Jesus, not even close. I filed out of class somewhat pleased that I’d had an interesting thought. I’d always wanted to understand why people made such a big deal out of the Cross.

I thought that was it. But now I know that’s one of the things that makes Good Friday good. Jesus took what was until that time a horrific symbol of torture and death, a tool to make an example of criminals, and he took it on to show us how much he loves us, how intimately he wants to know us, that he would drink from the very same cup of pain. And also, of course, to show that no matter how horrible that pain, it won’t have the last word.

I’ll always remember that day as the day Jesus got his hooks into me. He must have waited years for it. He got me good.

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How Jesus Ate My Livejournal

Photo Credit: Amancay Maas (flickr)

Photo Credit: Amancay Maas (flickr)

Once upon a time, before this blog was born, I had a Livejournal. For those of you who don’t know, Livejournals are what those of us who compulsively overshare our lives used before Facebook and Twitter.

As a lonely teenager who hated making eye contact, Livejournal was a great way for me to make friends. Some of them I eventually met in “real life,” while others I knew only by their screennames. Many of them found me by discovering we had common interests. You could list all your interests on your Livejournal profile, up to 150 of them, beckoning people who shared them with you.

I maxed out my list, declared myself interested in 150 things.

This is so like me.

Looking back at the last version of this list, dating from my college days, I can see I definitely wasn’t equally interested in all of them. Some of them, like “Ancient Greek” and “books” and “baking” were bona fide obsessions which will never fade entirely from my life.

Others, like “linguistics and “Latin dance,” were more in the “I’m interested enough in these things to take a few classes in them” sort of category.

Still others (“gardening,” “sewing,” “rivers”) were more like, “Eh, I feel like I should be interested in these things, but the feeling isn’t strong enough to get any real experience with them.”

And some were just odd. “Fingerprints”? “Quixoticism”? The things you say in college to try and make yourself sound cool.

I’ve been interested in a lot of things in my life. I like the newness of learning something, not so much the discipline of staying with it until mastery. I’ve dabbled in ballet, modern dance, ballroom dance, swing, bellydance, and Argentine tango. I’ve studied Spanish, German, Ancient Greek, Modern Greek, and Latin. I just can’t seem to decide on one thing. Heck, I have trouble with menus.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying this is necessarily bad. It’s fun and healthy and uplifting to try new things. But I can’t be equally interested in everything, no matter how much I’d like to tell myself I can. My life is (gasp!) not infinite.

And some things are so much more worthy of my interest than others.

“Jesus” is on my Livejournal list of interests too, buried under 149 other things. And, yeah, I was interested in Jesus in college. But let’s face it, not that much.

My faith didn’t grow much in college. I was too busy sampling all kinds of new ideas and running from activity to activity to read my Bible, worship, or pray.

Now I am old and wise by comparison. Not really. I still try to do way too much. But I have learned one powerful thing: the more obsessed I am with Jesus, the better. He isn’t just one more thing on the list of things I’m vaguely interested in.

The more interested I am in Jesus, the more interesting everything else is too. And loving Jesus can be the unifying force that makes all my other seemingly random interests hang together.

With Jesus at the center of things, everywhere I travel becomes part of the Way. Every new idea I find is measured by the Truth. Everything I do becomes part of the Life. Sometimes hard, messy, frustrating? Sure. But also shot through with hope.

This is part of my Christian walk. This is part of learning faithfulness: putting all those random interests under the umbrella of the best One of all.

Lenten Love Stories #5: The Slow Falling

In telling the love story between me and God, I’ve been sharing the big dramatic moments, like you do. You tell your friends about the moment you looked into your beloved’s eyes and knew, or the first time you put words to your feelings, or your first date or your wedding ceremony.

But love is so much more than the big memories. It’s the things that seem tiny at the time, but bring a smile to your face whenever you think of them. Yes, that too was love.

Jesus sent his disciples out to harvest what others had sown. The disciples watched people fall in love with Jesus over and over, but they’d already been falling for a long time. Other people had planted the seeds that would slowly grow green toward the light, would flower and bear fruit, would someday become ripe.

So many people have sown tiny seeds in my heart. Some of them are not around anymore to see the blossoms. Some of them I’ve fallen out of touch with. Some of them I never even met. I’m sure most of them are ignorant of any beauty they birthed in me. I know they didn’t see it happening at the time. As I’ve said many times, I’m a really slow learner spiritually. I’m sure watching for the seeds to sprout in me would have been about as much fun as watching actual grass grow.

One of the sowers was my dad, who told me stories about Jesus he heard from his mom, who heard them from Rose DeWitt, a middle-aged black lady who was once their neighbor in the projects of New York City. Heirloom seeds from this home-grown theologian who never held a degree but taught herself Hebrew, who invited my Jewish relatives to her Christmas feast, eyes shining from gazing on the face of Love.

One of the sowers was my mom, who dragged me to church in those early days, got me hooked on singing Psalms and the strange rituals of liturgy. Who responded to my urgent (and foolish) spiritual questions with a grace that never discouraged me from faith.

One of them was my first boss, Becky, who in addition to showing me some really great reading material really showed me what the Holy Spirit looked like in someone’s life during my teenage years. Endlessly patient through all my teenage screw-ups, honest and kind while sharing her faith, she was a true role model for me.

One of them was a young Christian I knew casually online named Trevor, who responded to my first public confession of faith not with shock at my rough language but with joy and excitement that I was so close to belief and a little friendly pressure to make a decision for Jesus.

One of them was my college Chaplain, whose office I visited at least once a term to sob out my life issues, anxieties about my family, my romantic prospects, and my purpose in life. She gave me a lot of great advice, too much of which I ignored for too long, and mostly she just listened, providing a safe place for me to wrestle with things I wouldn’t have told another soul on campus.

One of them was a woman I met online named Lasa who eventually invited me to stay at her house. She is the one who convinced me, somehow, that I wasn’t going to choose the wrong life path and end up on God’s bad side forever. As she put it, “God loves you too much to let you go.” Plus, she sent me my very first study Bible.

So much sweet fruit in my life now (such as there is) ultimately comes down to these people, who broke ground for my faith, who nurtured and protected it in the early days like a precious sapling. I hope one day they’ll get to know what those thousands of tiny moments meant, how all the love they lavished on me made harvest even possible.

Lenten Love Stories #2: The Mysterious Kiss

May 23rd, 2004

Just another Literary Guild meeting, I thought. I brought pumpkin bread to share. Officially I was Guild president, but that was just a title to put on my (now already accepted) college application. We were really a glorified book group, some nerdy friends who worked together at the community college’s Writing Lab.

We sat at the beautiful oak table in Pat’s dining room. My boss at the Writing Lab, Becky, sat to my right. She’d picked out the month’s reading, just one chapter of The Brothers Karamazov. Usually we tackled things like Homer’s Iliad, but the summer highs had already crept above a hundred degrees, so Becky had suggested something short, something light and summery by our standards: “The Grand Inquisitor.”

Three hours we sat there and talked about that chapter. It was nine-thirty by the time Becky drove me home, and I remember how the stars looked as we bounced down the dirt road. I was giddy with energy. I was newly in love.

The chapter (spoiler warning!) takes the form of a story told by one brother to another. Ivan is the skeptic, Alyosha the one with the childlike faith, and Ivan tells Alyosha a story about Jesus. Jesus coming back to earth during the Spanish Inquisition and meeting the Grand Inquisitor, the head of it all. Actually, the Inquisitor has Jesus thrown into prison.

Visiting the captured Jesus, the Grand Inquisitor stares at him and exclaims: “Is it Thou? Thou? … Don’t answer, be silent… Thou hast no right to add to anything thou said of old.” Jesus obeys, looking on in silence as the old man rants about how Jesus ruined everything during his encounter with Satan in the desert, when he denied the temptations of “miracle, mystery and authority.” Jesus refused to manipulate people into submission to him – he left them with their freedom to accept or reject him. The Inquisitor explains that people are too weak for this freedom, that they need control, that no one can live up to the standards Jesus taught, that the church is now controlling the masses and fixing these mistakes Jesus made.

He concludes his indictment of Jesus by saying that he will burn him at the stake as the worst of heretics, and the same people who worship him today will rush tomorrow to throw more kindling on the fire that consumes him.

Alyosha interrupts the story at this point, horrified, saying his brother is misrepresenting Christianity and that the Inquisitor clearly doesn’t believe in God. Ivan admits the old man’s atheism, but says it’s actually compassion for humanity that drives him forward, his sincere realization that the average person will never be able to carry the burden of morality Jesus has placed on his or her shoulders.

Around that oak table, we asked ourselves and each other, Is faith a sign of weakness or of strength? Is religion inevitably cruel and oppressive? Are people really too weak to follow the hard teachings of Jesus?

I took Ivan’s side in these questions. I couldn’t help but see the ugliness of religion, how it was so often used for cruelty, how the teachings of Jesus seemed often to burden people instead of setting them free. I was grateful for Ivan’s boldness in asking questions, his frankness in admitting he couldn’t believe in God.

But when we got to the end of Ivan’s story, something happened to me. I’d read through the thing quickly by myself, but discussing it with my friends around the table, the words jumped out at me as if for the first time.

Jesus looks at the old man in silence. The Inquisitor wishes he would say something, anything at all, no matter how terrible. But then Jesus silently comes forward and kisses the old man on his wrinkled lips. That’s the only answer he gives.

The old man shudders, opens the door to the cell, and lets him go. Ivan concludes the story, “The kiss glows in his heart, but the old man adheres to his idea.”

A kiss? That was Jesus’s idea of an answer to this torrent of words? The thought almost offended me, but at the same time touched me in a way I couldn’t explain. My own mind, so full of doubt and argument, bumped up against a love so great it didn’t have to explain itself.

The kiss glowed in my own heart as I came home under the stars. I didn’t yet understand what was happening to me. That night God called to me and I heard, a moment as mysterious and irresistible as suddenly falling in love.

Lenten Love Stories #1: How I Came Back to the Church

October 2008

I woke up one day with this song in my head I hadn’t heard since childhood. A song they used to sing sometimes in my church when we went up to receive Communion. But I’d stopped going to that church ten years ago. I couldn’t believe I still remembered it.

Do not be afraid; I am with you / I have called you each by name / Come and follow me, I will bring you home / I love you and you are mine

I had just moved to the city from my small-town college, still slept on my friends’ living room floor. After months of applying for jobs, I’d landed one at a cookie factory, what I called “my I Love Lucy  job.” Workdays, I woke up at three in the morning, ate plain oatmeal, and went to wait for the train in the dark. When I left work, it was dark again.

The day I woke up with the song in my head, though, was Saturday, a day off. On Saturdays, I woke up and tried to meditate, perhaps trying to convince myself there was something romantically monastic about my spartan lifestyle.

I opened the book of devotions I was using to a random page, and the same words jumped out at me, the beginning of Isaiah 43:

Do not fear, for I have redeemed you;
    I have summoned you by name; you are mine.
When you pass through the waters,
    I will be with you;
and when you pass through the rivers,
    they will not sweep over you.
When you walk through the fire,
    you will not be burned;
    the flames will not set you ablaze.
For I am the Lord your God,
    the Holy One of Israel, your Savior.

I blinked. How weird, I thought. Well, maybe I had seen this page on another day and that was what got the song into my head. I did my usual sad attempt at meditating and went about my day.

The next day, Sunday, I decided to try out a church. I’d never really stuck with one in college, preferring to make brunch for friends on Sunday morning. But now, in this new place, I’d decided it would be good for me to have a church of my own. It would help me meet people. I’d heard about this church before, seen its beautiful picture online, heard great things about its welcoming atmosphere.

It happened to be a Catholic church, like the one I’d grown up in.

When I came out as a Christian to my father in my late teens, the first thing he asked me was, “Does that mean you’ll do everything the Pope says now?”

“No, Dad,” I said, with a great show of patience. “That’s Catholics. I’m not specifically Catholic anymore, I’m just a Christian.”

During my college years, I’d never felt a draw back to my childhood church. The churches I shopped were Episcopalian, United Church of Christ, nondenominational.  I’d attended maybe one Catholic Mass since my conversion, and I felt completely unmoved by it.

The one thing I’d really missed about Mass was Communion. Some of the churches I’d attended only shared the bread and wine occasionally, and that never felt quite right to me. So as the Mass went on, I started to get excited about receiving Communion again. After all these years of getting it sporadically at best, I guess I was hungry.

Finally the moment approached. People started to sing the Communion song.

I started to laugh. Then I started to cry, covered my face and sobbed right there in my wooden pew.

It was the song that had been in my head for the last two days: “You Are Mine,” by David Haas.

As I went up to receive the Body and Blood of Christ, I was crying so hard I couldn’t even think of singing. On my way back to my seat, a stranger swept me into her arms and gave me a huge hug.

Things like this don’t happen to me. You should know that. I am not a magnet for miracles, or even remarkable coincidences. But after all my wandering and all my doubting, that day I got a sign I couldn’t ignore. Don’t be afraid, it said. Come on. This way is home.

When I Don’t Want to Be Saved

My friend Rob once saved me from a speeding bus. I was about to blithely step into the street and he said, “Look out, Rachel!” and shoved his arm in front of me so I couldn’t move. Only then did I see the bus, now passing inches from my face, going so fast I was caught in a whoosh of air as it departed.

What was my immediate reaction? Did I thank my friend for potentially saving my life? Did I burst into happy tears that I was still here and whole?

No. When the shock of the moment wore off, I turned to him and said crankily, “That wasn’t necessary, you know. I would have seen it coming and stopped.”

In a more private moment later that evening, tears did come, and they still weren’t tears of joy. I cried because I wasn’t sure I would have seen the bus coming and stopped. My tears were tears of anger at myself – I didn’t want to be the kind of person who could die in so stupid a way. I wanted to believe I was the kind of person who could take care of herself, who was too smart to walk in front of a moving bus, but deep down, I didn’t think I was.

I still struggle with not wanting to be saved. You would think I’d be happy about it, since we Christians love to proclaim we’ve been saved by Jesus. Central to my religion is the belief that salvation is a gift of God, not something you could ever earn, but pure breathtaking grace.

But the thing is, sometimes I still don’t want to be the kind of person who needs saving. I don’t want to have to depend on God so heavily. I want to be the kind of person who naturally does the right thing for the right reason, who is always getting wiser and better without having to ask for help.

But I’m not that person. I don’t have it all under control. My motives are mixed at best. I’m really selfish and really easily floored by suffering.

Sometimes this realization hits me anew like the proverbial speeding bus. For two years in a row now, I’ve been excited to start a new year on the right foot: make lots of goals, get my life on track, bring all my productivity and energy to the table. And for two years in a row, I’ve woken up sick. This year, I also strained my shoulder first thing in the morning. Was I doing aerobics? No, I was attempting to get out of bed.

Needless to say, I didn’t live my ideal day today. I wasn’t super productive. I didn’t get a lot of planning done. I took a lot of naps and popped a lot of ibuprofen. And I didn’t bear the pain well, either – I prayed for patience, but in the same breath, I also whined about having to spend a vacation day in bed.

I think Someone may be trying to tell me something, namely, that I am not a self-sufficient being. I can have all the ambition and great plans that I want, but ultimately, my life can easily be altered by forces outside my control. And that’s okay, because I am not my achievements. I can learn this now, or I can learn it when I start to get old and lose my ability to achieve in the conventional ways, along with my marbles and/or my mobility (if I make it that long without getting run over).

My job is not to be in control of everything. It’s okay to be small and weak and need saving. Blessed are the poor in spirit, those who know how perennially messed up they are and suck at hiding it. Because when you realize that you don’t run the world, it frees you up to live in the Kingdom of God.

Oh, and Rob? If you’re reading this, I guess it’s time to finally say thank you.

Ernie and the Feast of St. Francis

St. Francis of Assisi (circa 1182-1220)

Last year, on the eve of the Feast of St. Francis, I left our church building late. The next day, the building would be alive with people who brought their animals in for a blessing, cats and dogs and mice and snakes crowding the pews with their humans. Tonight, however, had been the Transitus service, commemorating the passage of St. Francis from his earthly life into the arms of God.

I wasn’t planning on coming the next day; I was scheduled to take the GRE instead. Ironic, to skip church so you can take a standardized test and apply to graduate school for the purpose of being a Bible scholar. Some of the other parishioners who knew about tomorrow’s appointment were shocked that I’d come to the evening’s service instead of studying. But I felt like I’d already put in my effort on this, and now it was up to God. So why not spend the evening listening to Scripture, remembering a beloved saint, and revisiting why I was doing this in the first place?

No one offered me a ride home that night, so I slunk out the side entrance of the church, intending to slip home in the shadows. But I’d forgotten my eye-catching attire, the hand-sewn quasi-Franciscan robe I’d inherited from someone in our community who had passed away. I could never walk down the street wearing such a thing without comment, and tonight was no exception.

“Hey!” said a voice from the darkness. “You’re dressed up like a monk, aren’t you?”

I turned around to see a man maybe in his late fifties or early sixties sitting in a folding chair with his meager possessions in front of our church building (a not uncommon sight which doesn’t endear us to some of our neighbors). He was smiling, seemed friendly, and suddenly I was inclined to talk to him.

“Yeah,” I said. “I’m dressed like St. Francis because we’re celebrating his feast day tomorrow.”

“I knew it,” he said triumphantly. “This church of yours is a good place. Your pastor gave me one of these Catholic Bibles. Now I know the Bible backward and forward, but this has books I’ve never read before, and I can’t wait to get down to studying them.”

“So you like reading the Bible?”

I was just being polite, but his face lit up at the question. He started telling me what he read in the Bible that brought him joy – leaping from page to page of the great Story with ease, shining light on connections between Law and Gospel.

I found myself nodding and echoing things he said, all but saying “Amen.” This strange man, with his days worth of stubble, sitting in his folding chair surrounded by all his worldly possessions, was speaking encouragement to my soul.

At one point he paused and appeared to size me up. “You get what I’m saying, don’t you? You don’t think I’m crazy?”

I shook my head. “I think you make more sense than almost anyone else I know.”

He smiled and extended his hand. “I’m Ernie. Nice to meet you.”

From there, Ernie told me some of his own story. He said he’d been caring for his elderly mom for years back east and had decided to leave her in the care of other relatives so he could travel and do other work for awhile. But when he’d gotten here, there was little work, and his savings had rapidly dwindled until he could no longer afford to get back home, then until he had no place to live.

He said he couldn’t ask money from his mother, since she lived on a fixed income, and anyway he was sure he would soon figure out how to get a ticket back. He said he was trying to make his way further north, where he was sure more work could be found.

He told me this without a trace of self-pity and didn’t ask anything from me. Finally, he fished a picture out of one of his suitcases and showed it to me beaming. “That’s my mom, right there. My best friend.”

“You look like her,” I said. “Same smile.”

I realized I’d been standing there for at least an hour listening to him talk. I’d forgotten about the text the next day. I’d forgotten about everything but the Story God told and this man’s story of his life.

“You’re probably thinking you should head home,” he said, noticing the look on my face. “Well, it was nice to meet you, Rachel.”

“You too, Ernie,” I said. “Thank you. I hope I’ll see you around.” And I walked off into the night, his words still buzzing in my ears, words that tumbled over each other with his passion about the Bible.

I took the test the next day, locked for five hours in a gray room with noise-canceling headphones. I rocked it (well, at least the parts important to my future). I would have liked to have told Ernie, told him about my dream of studying the Bible, but I never saw him again after that night. Maybe he found a way to get where the work was, or even to get back home.

And I didn’t go to graduate school after all – not this year, anyway. I got accepted to my dream school, but didn’t get the financial aid I wanted, and I wasn’t sure whether I could make it work in the big picture of my life. After I deferred my admission I felt mostly numb, but a few weeks after that I cried for days straight, mourning my dream.

But now, when I think about that night I talked to Ernie, I feel more encouraged than ever about my future. I can do what I love – study Scripture and bring it into people’s lives – whether I end up in school or not. Ernie did, armed with almost nothing in this world but his Bible and his mind. He spoke truth to me from a humble folding chair in the shadows of the street, and I’ll never forget it.

Nine Words to Guide My Future

In 2004, I remember sitting on that worn basement couch after Bible Study and telling someone for the first time that I was a Christian. I remember walking home to my dorm that night a little drunk on cosmic love, naïvely dreaming of doing Something Great for Jesus Someday as I pushed the glass door of my dorm open, caught between wild darkness and warm glow.

In 2005, I traveled to Greece with its grand, golden, empty churches. I walked to the one neighborhood people told me not to go to, down streets crammed with people and past shops crammed with imported trinkets, to the soup kitchen above a falafel shop. Heavenly smell as I climbed the stairs! Inside, slopping soup and taking names, I learned that my smile was sometimes not enough, that Something Great for Jesus was hard to do, but nonetheless, I kept showing up.

In 2006, they called from Arizona to tell me my grandmother was dying. I flew home immediately, though we’d never been that close and my teenage self-absorption and her dementia had just widened the gap. When I walked in the room I barely recognized her, her body curled in fetal position, the vibrant red hair of her youth almost gone. We children and grandchildren held her hand and fed her ice chips and sang to her and talked to her, although we didn’t know if she could sense our presence anymore. She died the next day, all of us in the room watching her chest rise and fall until it didn’t anymore. What can I say? I’d never loved her more. In those few days, I saw Jesus in her.

In 2007, I went to live in rural Panama for two months. I went “to help,” which was, again, a total joke. I lived with nine other people in a house with one room and one light bulb. They pulled out all the stops for me, gave me the only real bed, taught me merengue and how to wash my clothes by hand. Everywhere I went in that town of maybe a hundred, people pulled out their best plastic chairs, shooed away their dogs, sliced up mangoes, made coffee, killed a precious chicken for my dinner. The strangeness of their world almost shook my faith apart, and their generosity put it back together again.

In 2008, I graduated college, moved to a new state, and couldn’t get a job for three months. Then I got a job, which I found exhausting and grueling, and I almost got fired except I cried in my boss’s office and she took pity on me. I almost couldn’t function, unable to live with my utter incompetence, not wanting to leave the house. The worst was feeling like I’d failed God by letting all this crush me. But I remember, too, crying on the phone with a distant friend about my multiple levels of failure, and she said, “Oh Rachel, don’t you know God loves you so much he’ll never let you go?” And I cried more, because somehow I hadn’t known it before, and now I did.

In 2009, I found a church home for the first time. Weeks before Lent, I walked into that shabby wooden building not knowing how much it would shape the next several years of my life. I ate the bread and drank the wine, and it started to infect me, ever so slowly, like yeast or a creeping weed like mustard plants. They drilled the Preferential Option for the Poor into my head with sermon after sermon, they washed my feet on Holy Thursday and stayed up until midnight with me on Easter Vigil. Before I knew it I wasn’t just a spectator, I was part of the Body again, bringing muffins to interminable meetings in which we plotted how to bring the Kingdom always just a little closer.

In 2010, I picked up my dusty Bible and read the thing through for the very first time. I wrestled with twisted family histories, purity codes, temple blueprints, census numbers, raving prophets, and strange riddles, and I realized something that should always have been obvious: This is a love story, beginning to end.

In 2011, I started praying for real. I sat in silence and tried to learn to just Be with the one who is called I Am Who I Am. I met a woman from Canada on the Internet who wanted to be prayer partners with me. I prayed for her through her months of bed rest during what was possibly one of the world’s most epically difficult pregnancies, and she prayed, with awesome humility, for my relatively pain-free life and my rampant pride issues. We’d wake up while it was still dark sometimes to encourage each other, and miles away we’d pray with similar desperation things like Please let me get through this day.

In 2012, I found myself sitting in on a rather unremarkable seminary class and I heard some words read aloud that were like a big neon sign to me: This is a clue to what you do with your life. It had to do with some of my favorite things: bread and words and desert rain. It was Isaiah 55:10-11:

As the rain and the snow
come down from heaven,
and do not return to it
without watering the earth
and making it bud and flourish,
so that it yields seed for the sower and bread for the eater,
so is my word that goes out from my mouth:
It will not return to me empty,
but will accomplish what I desire
and achieve the purpose for which I sent it.

In 2013, I’m wrestling with that passage and how to make those words come true in me. Can I do it? Too early to tell, really. It may take another nine years. It may take the rest of my life, or even more than that. Who knows.

If I make it through the next nine years, I’ll be thirty-six, the age my mother was when she had me, her first child. I think about that and I think, It’s not too late to give birth to what will bring you your greatest joy. When I think about the future, I think about what I want to define me, and I think of learning these nine words by heart until they power me like a heartbeat: Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me, a sinner.

Recipe for Rebirth

Looking back at my life nine years ago, I can’t help but ask myself what it was about that moment that made me suddenly want to follow Jesus. Why then, ten years since attending church for the first time, having had countless conversations with friends and relatives about their faith, did the Jesus story suddenly seem real and applicable to me?

Another journal entry, this one from September 2004, gives me the best answer I’ve found so far. (Again, not edited for language.)

Here are, in my mind, the fundamentals of Christianity:

1. Humility. We all fuck up, every day, like clockwork. It is part of being human. We can’t escape the flaws of our minds and souls any more than we can death, the ultimate flaw of our bodies. And as much as we all hate to admit it, we cannot do anything about this. We cannot become perfect, blessed, pain-free beings through force of will, good intentions, experience, book learning, or anything else. What, then, can help us?

2. Hope. The main story of Christianity is about a man who died and rose again. This is ludicrous, impossible, stupid. Yet aren’t all forms of hope? Hope means believing that, impossibly enough, love can come from our emptiness and weakness, that when all we see is dead ends and sacrifice and suffering, something else will come to fill the suffering and transform it. This is what I have a hard time believing, not to mention arguing, because what if it isn’t true? Still, even if those who hope are wrong and deluded, maybe they will still be able to do what they thought was impossible. At least they will have a reason to keep trying. Is it weak to need a reason? Yes. But so are we.

These, not particular Bible verses, are fundamentals worth clinging to. Neither one should be compromised. If you have humility without hope, you give up. If you have hope without humility, you become proud, and then you fall. If you have both, you just might be sane. Also, you just might be Christian.

Frankly, it blows my mind to read this, for one thing because I still believe it. Out of the mouths of babes! This is still the crux of my central struggle as a Christian: to accept my deeply flawed nature and to cling to hope despite that. One of those things that Shane Claiborne might describe as “simple and hard as crud.” It also blows my mind how close this is to Romans 7:15-25, a poignant description of the hope of Christ breaking through the apparent hopelessness of human nature. And I know I didn’t get it from the Bible, because I wouldn’t really read the Bible for years.

But this entry encapsulates my mental state at the time very well. Poised on the edge of adulthood, soon to leave home and go to college, I was getting to know both humility and hope better than ever before. On the one hand, as a teenager, I was struggling with the knowledge of my own limits, my inadequacy, and my propensity to do things I knew were wrong (disrespecting my family was a big one, according to those old journal entries). On the other hand, I felt that in leaving for college I’d be able to make a new start, and anything seemed possible.

My adult life stretched out before me; so far, it was unmarred by mistakes, but I knew it soon would be black with them. Also, I was painfully aware of all the adults around me who dealt with their mistakes and subsequent regret in all kinds of unhealthy ways, from addiction to complete social disengagement to unbridled anger. They were good people, nice people, well-intentioned people, but this did not save them from an endless cycle of pain and bad decisions and pain and bad decisions, lather rinse repeat. And I think all this made me unusually disposed to hope that somehow, there was a Way out of such a cycle.

I was scared and guilty and confused and unprepared. In short, I was ready for some good news. I was listening hard for it, and I heard it, heard the Good News as if it were spoken directly to me: blessed are the desperately lonely, the inveterate losers, the constant screw-ups, for they shall receive, because they don’t deserve it, the gift of abundant hope.

Happy Rebirthday to Me!

English: Traditional Devil's Food Birthday CakeYes, that’s right. Today, July 19th, is my rebirthday. Don’t worry, you didn’t come unprepared to the party! Presents absolutely not necessary (although if you want to use it as an excuse to eat cake, the rebirthday girl condones that).

So what’s a rebirthday? Simply put, it’s the day of my conversion. Roughly. I kind of had a creeping conversion. Some people see a bright light and fall off their horse, but God knows such theatrics generally terrify me, so my conversion was a slippery slope, a doubt that lodged itself in my doubt, a strange experiment that proved more and more true. Anyway, it was on July 19th that I first admitted I wanted to follow Christ.

That was nine years ago. So in Earth years, I’m twenty-seven and a half (today, coincidentally, also being my half-birthday), but in spiritual years, I am squarely in grade school, which seems about right.

Here, for your reading pleasure, is my first public confession of faith. Edited slightly for clarity but not for language, so be warned! Oh, teenage Livejournal entries.

Sometimes I would really like to be a Christian. I think churches and ceremony give people a false sense of security, but the basic idea is so crazy it just might work. Only recently did I realize how revolutionary a philosophy it is. As opposed to a God or gods who may or may not care about what it feels like to be human, the Christians have a God who became human, who understood pain and death so well that he knowingly took them on, who understood sin so well that he forgave us all for being the sinful creatures that we are.

To me, Jesus represents undeserved, boundless, insane forgiveness. I become increasingly convinced, on a gut level, that this is what we all need. None of us are good people. Most of us are good-natured, but there is zero chance that we will live blameless lives or even that we’ll be able to fix all our good-natured mistakes. In this context, maybe Jesus really is the Light and the Way. His philosophy says, “It doesn’t matter what a shithead you are. I love you, I accept the fact that you have made and will continue to make mistakes, and I encourage you to do the same so you can try to be a better person without getting bogged down in guilt and mind games.”

It’s a terrifying idea, because such an awesome gift could only be accepted with total submission. We try so hard to con ourselves into believing that we are in control, that we’re worth something, when the truth is we don’t know shit about our own brains, much less the universe, and we have no defense against death. Pain moves people to deceive themselves more strongly than they can even understand; I know I must have delusions I haven’t begun to discover yet. I know many intelligent, wonderful people who are absolutely terrified by not knowing things and will not admit it to themselves. Maybe we should all join Liars Anonymous and, as our first step, admit that we do not have control.

As usual, I don’t believe wholeheartedly. I picked up a book on Sartre today and became terrified myself. What if we really DO have control and I am just trying to evade responsibility again by yearning for some sort of cosmic forgiveness? However, as uncertain as I am about everything else, I think it’s a fact that our tiny, pink, squishy brains cannot truly understand what’s going on around us… The fact that most of us are completely unable to deal with the fact of our eventual death should tell us something. Maybe there are worse things than believing that, against all odds, we are loved and we have a second chance.

See you tomorrow for continued celebration! It’s my rebirthday week, after all.

Do you celebrate your rebirthday or other unconventional anniversaries? How far have you come in the last nine years?