I have to completely agree with business writer Brett Nelson who wrote that the phrase "'Come To Jesus Moment' Is The Most Annoying Business Expression On Earth." I understand that the concept has some currency in the common parlance, with connotations of humor and threat; but if you were subjected to the real thing as a child and urged repeatedly to "come to Jesus," it is not even remotely funny, and the threatening aspect falls sickly flat.
In his essay, "Salvation," American poet Langston Hughes explains it much better than I ever could. For anyone who was not brought up in an evangelical tradition, he provides a glimpse of the impact that fundamentalism can have on the heart of an impressionable innocent child; he makes the point that trying to force kids into some kind of mystical religious experience might make them more cynical rather than increasing their faith. His description certainly rings true to my experience. I did not come across his essay until I was an adult, but it made me feel less lonely and bizarre about my religious upbringing in the Church of the Nazarene -- such a strange way to be raised, such a harsh thing to do to a kid or to an adult.
Hughes writes: "My aunt told me that when you were saved you saw a light, and something happened to you inside! And Jesus came into your life! And God was with you from then on! She said you could see and hear and feel Jesus in your soul. I believed her. I had heard a great many old people say the same thing and it seemed to me they ought to know. So I sat there calmly in the hot, crowded church, waiting for Jesus to come to me. . . . And I kept waiting serenely for Jesus, waiting, waiting - but he didn't come. I wanted to see him, but nothing happened to me. Nothing! I wanted something to happen to me, but nothing happened."
Like young Langston, I decided long ago that if I kept waiting around for a conversion experience or a personal relationship with God, I'd end up waiting forever. Perhaps it is a matter of personality or maybe it's "just my nature" to doubt or be unmoved by emotional appeals to the supernatural, while other people have a deep response to those methods. In the Church of the Nazarene, experiencing these emotions was the central act of faith, so I always felt really excluded -- a goat, not a sheep -- because I never felt the hand of god move or heard Jesus speaking to my heart.
Though I realized early on (by age 10) that it would never work for me, I stayed in the church, trying to remain in favor with my family, until age 26. With huge relief, I finally resolved not to do that anymore and started actively seeking another path. I was committed to the insistence that religion has to make some kind of sense, and to finding a church where human intelligence is valued, rather than the hypocritical "please leave your brain at the door" attitude that I resented throughout my formative years. I knew that I would never want my children subjected to the criticism and judging and unnecessary shame of Protestant fundamentalism.
First, I tried a couple of campus - oriented Unitarian services -- very academic; then I visited a big impersonal Methodist church once or twice because it was just a few blocks from my house and easy to walk to. Next came Notre Dame during the Hesburgh years, where, not surprisingly, I met many Catholics, including Gerry. While at Notre Dame, I attended various masses with friends of mine around the campus from time to time (some fancy in the Basilica, others in dormitory lounges or at the Grotto). I never really felt that Catholicism was for me -- too exclusive and sexist and every bit as judgmental as the Nazarenes, but I liked the liturgical nature of the ceremony, which was new for me after all those years of touchy - feely protestantism.
Maybe it's a literary thing, but I decided then to cast my lot with ritual and liturgy. I like doing things like reciting or singing or listening to certain prayers, poems, psalms, hymns because I like those words, and I like the act of singing or choral reading or just hearing certain words or phrases. For the duration (5 minutes) of hearing someone sing "Ave Maria" or for the duration (2 minutes) of reciting the Apostles' Creed, I feel convinced of meaning, grace, history, connection. I can easily believe that the world's most beautiful words, songs, and buildings have all been created to the "glory of God," even though I'm not entirely sure what that means. What I'm willing to do (and maybe this is my "faith") is to accept that sense of fulfillment and participation as a worthwhile act in itself.
When Gerry and I decided to marry, I was willing to join the Catholic church, despite my misgivings that once again I would be considered a goat instead of a sheep. For a variety of reasons, however, this was not to be our fate; but that's another story -- a rather long one -- for another year.
Instead, we decided to try St. John's Episcopal, in Lafayette, and immediately felt welcome. There were our neighbors from across street, who we did not know attended there! There was the couple from Gerry's work who often hosted the book group that we had recently joined -- we didn't know we'd see them there. As you can see, it seemed like a perfect fit, even before the fact. Around the same time, the Purdue Episcopal Campus Ministry advertised for an office administrator, and it became an even better fit! I enjoyed that job -- working for Peter and Nancy back in our Wesley Foundation Building Era -- for 3 1/2 years; and -- between Good Shepherd and St. John's -- the Episcopal Church became the center of our life at Purdue.
Gerry and I had a couple of months of pre-marital counselling with Peter and had our wedding service at St. John's in September 1989. A few months later, we officially joined the church and have been attending ever since. After Ben was born, my tolerant and understanding boss allowed me to bring my little one to work with me every morning. Ben became the Good Shepherd Office Baby, doing such an excellent job in this role that before long he was promoted to Office Toddler! I stopped working at Good Shepherd only because we re - located to Philadelphia. While there, we attended three Episcopal Churches -- St. Mary's on the Penn campus, St. James' in the suburbs, and St. Peter's right downtown where Ben and Sam served their time as choristers.
After 11 years in the City of Brotherly Love, we made our way back to West Lafayette and back to Good Shepherd, just in time for Ben and Sam to join Friday School, where they met the Knapp brothers Chris and Brendan. Hey, I remembered these boys being born -- Chris a few months before Ben, and Brendan a few months before Sam, back in the early days when I had worked at Good Shepherd! And now, in one of those uncanny life - affirming parrallelisms, they were all reunited -- in the same grades at school, in the same confirmation classes; Ben and Chris as roommates at Purdue, Sam and Brendan as best friends at West Side. If that's not church family, I don't know what is! At Good Shepherd, there is never any doubt that we will find people with similar interests, values, and notions of humor and social justice.
In conclusion, I would like to share some inspiring, inclusive words that I have been fortunate enough to hear spoken before communion, inviting all -- not just some -- to the table. I am nearly moved to tears by such unexpected generosity of spirit:
The first is: "None forbidden, none compelled."
The second is: "All who seek the truth are welcome here."
These kindhearted and introspective invitations stand in stark contrast to the many excluding, forbidding messages that I have heard proclaimed at various churches over the long years. "None forbidden, none compelled," is so much more respectful than the typical agenda of restrictions and requirements. And how refreshing to welcome "All who seek the truth" rather than only those who tread the exact same path. At Good Shepherd, I have been able to apply these two pre - communion blessings as personal mantras and continually strive to internalize the inherent value they assign to individual integrity and spiritual quest.
At Good Shepherd there are no goats, only sheep.
I gave the above presentation yesterday morning
as part of Stewardship Sunday
at The Chapel of the Good Shepherd
The Episcopal Campus Ministry at Purdue University
I drew from the following recent blog posts:
1. July 14 ~ Born Only Once
2. July 28 ~ O Ya - Ya of Little Faith
3. August 14 ~ None Forbidden, None Compelled
4. September 10 ~ Soul Searching
I do feel a little bad about using goats
to represent the negative aspect.
They don't deserve that! After all,
they are innocent, just like the sheep!