Rector's Blog: When I Became an Episcopalian - Part 3
I became an Episcopalian because of Jesus. As I wrote/talked about last week, when I was 22 I was invited to attend a class at a local Episcopal Church. This happened to me when I was right in the midst of a spiritual reawakening. After years of disconnection from organized religion and conscious struggle with what I thought about God, I had recently realized I believed in Jesus. Sometime after that realization, I came to the conclusion that I would not be able to practice that belief all by myself and would have to find a community with which to do the work of being Christian.
This is the frame of mind I was in when, at a Farmer’s Market, a friend of a friend of a friend invited me to this class. So, I showed up.
The class lasted 10 weeks, and about 6 weeks in, I was still not sold on The Episcopal Church. I had not attended worship at that point – just the classes. And this is no knock on the class. Our teacher was the first person that made me really think I might want to be a priest. He is an amazing blessing on my life who helped me believe I could actually be Christian. Plus, there was free dinner and cookies! They did it all right.
Despite that, I wasn’t all in. I was still struggling. In part what I was wrestling with was just how allowing this denomination was. Everyone at my table seemed to have a different belief in who Jesus is, and what that means for us. Some of the people didn’t want to talk about Jesus at all as they felt it made us evangelicals or something. I remember in one class we were provided Bibles and asked to open them to a specific page number. I grew up in a church where you learned the Bible by book, chapter, and verse. Page numbers were for the weak! And the teacher, as amazing as he was, wasn’t spending his time correcting people or warning them or trying to fix them. He was giving us space to think.
You’d think I’d like that. And I did. Mostly. It was helpful for me because I didn’t want to be corrected or fixed. But it was challenging for me because shouldn’t he try to fix the people who thought differently than me? I hear myself now. Please know that. I know now how entrenched in certainty I was – how important I believed it was to be certain of something. And then I had this religious conversion experience. And it was beautiful, and it changed my life, but it also sometimes reinforced my belief in certainty. Converts are sometimes the most zealous people you’ll meet. I wasn’t sure what to do.
It’s important not to pretend it’s picture perfect, our entrance into the place where we belong. Conversion is not a constant romance or mass of magical moments. It is a process with fits and starts.
6 weeks into this class, and I wanted to know what this church actually did believe. I wanted to know if they believed in Jesus, and what they believed about him. I wanted to know if they believed in impossible things, or if they were just trying to be reasonable and thoughtful. That night the Rector of the church got up to teach. The subject she’d been assigned was on Evil and on spiritual warfare. She was deeply reasonable and thoughtful. Which was not surprising to me. But at the same time, she talked about Jesus.
She spoke about Jesus with passion and conviction and talked about how Jesus saved her from evil. She did not speak metaphorically to this group of intellectual thinkers. She spoke of her experience. She had marched and protested for racial equality during the Civil Rights Movement as a young White woman. She spoke of the evil of bigotry. Then she told us of the men who accosted her during her protest. Who beat her. Who bashed in her knees and sent her to hospital, almost to the morgue. She spoke of the violence in their eyes. I remember her talking about how their hatred had consumed them. She said Evil exists.
I had been taught Evil was about satanic rituals and Ouija boards and heavy metal music and people loving someone they shouldn’t. This priest changed my understanding in one fell swoop. And then she spoke passionately of Jesus. In Los Angeles. To Episcopalians. She spoke about Jesus’ clear and consistent advocacy for the love, the humanization, the belonging of all people. And she spoke of how, while she lay in the hospital healing from her wounds, Jesus healed her heart and allowed her to choose love instead of hate as she persisted in the holy work for justice and equity.
That night I sat in this space where this Christian woman connected the spiritual and the practical with articulation, where she connected the actual issues of love and mercy and equality and violence and hatred and fear with the story of how God is working in the world and where Jesus shows up.
That Sunday I showed up. I worshiped with them for the first time.
As I walked into the nave of the church there was a little bowl of holy water. I was very confused. What was I supposed to do with that? The service felt so foreign and familiar at the same time – structured like the services of my youth, but with different words and actions. Some people crossed themselves. Some kneeled. I kneeled, not knowing why.
I didn’t understand all the words I heard, and I didn’t say all of them, but I felt them. I was like a camera with the shutter wide open, soaking in the light of every detail. Some of that was romantic. Some was reticence and skepticism. My dad once told me a joke about a church where nobody is singing the hymn because they’re all reading ahead to see if they agree with what it says first. That’s a little how I was.
I remember they read the Nicene Creed – one of the ancient foundational statements of the Christian faith. I remember hearing that we believe in one church. Not as in one denomination, but as in some kind of unified people. That resonated with me.
Then came communion. I love communion. They had a big cup from which everyone drank. I was used to little individual holy shot glasses. This blew my mind for some reason. Afterward they commissioned some folks to take communion to homebound people. As they did that, the congregation all said together, “We who are many are one body because we all share one bread and one cup.”
I was so struck by the desire for unity. The language of belonging to God and to each other. Of not just seeking to find common ground but seeking to be the common ground – to be the place of connection between all. The seeking to be reasonable and acknowledging our skepticism while also engaging in mysterious ritual and openly thanking and praising God.
So, I kept showing up. In fact, I never stopped showing up. I moved to North Carolina and found a church. I was working on a movie there and to everyone’s chagrin insisted on having Sunday mornings off. I am a stubborn fellow. I believe in the resurrection of the dead and the life everlasting. And also, I’m going to struggle with believing that. I believe in Jesus and I don’t always know why or how or what to do with that. And I will keep showing up.
Throughout these last few weeks, I have been talking about when I became an Episcopalian. You might think I believe that it is the only way or the best way to be Christian. I don’t. you might wonder if I think we’re perfect. I don’t. Believe me, I don’t. There are so many ways to experience Jesus’ love in this world. And frankly, while I believe in Jesus and have committed my life to serving him, I am convinced that God is wildly and beautifully and magnificently present in the lives and faith of people who believe very different things than me – including people who are other religions and people who don’t believe in God at all.
But I’m telling you this story because my colleague Joanna recently preached a sermon about when she became Episcopalian and what that meant to her, and I realized in hearing her words, that for me, to become an Episcopalian was to be loved and liberated. To be accepted and challenged. To be welcomed and transformed. To be not just a recipient of my conversion, but an active participant in it. To follow Jesus in a way that was authentic to the song that has been playing in my heart all these years. To be surrounded by Christians who were not allowed to be themselves in other churches, and to know that I was one of them.
I have heard people say that to become some specific religion or find some church was like coming home. I am a believer that you cannot ever go home again. Not really. Like the college student that comes back to their house for the summer – even when it is comfortable and safe, something has shifted. You have shifted. So, your home can’t be to you what it once was. You may go home, but it’s not the home that it was, because you aren’t the person you were.
When I was 13 my family broke up. My home disappeared. My life was radically altered. My relationship to God changed. For me, becoming an Episcopalian was not at all like coming home: It was the foundation, the cornerstone of the new home I was building. It was a step forward into a new way of being me. And this home is still being built. This church is not my past. It’s my present.
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