I do not attend church (or any “house of worship”) regularly anymore. However, one hot, humid, Sunday morning this past August, I wended my way to St. Mark’s Episcopal to hear my friend, Dale, preach. He does “pulpit supply” there (his home church) occasionally. Dale earned an MFA (Master of Fine Arts) in creative writing after finishing his seminary studies. He’s written a one-man play titled “Jesus Phreak” and has performed it in churches and universities nationwide. Dale and I have been friends for a decade or so. He identifies as a Christian, but he’s not like any Christian I’ve ever known.
Church is familiar to me. I was born to Protestant, missionary parents who “served the Lord” in Buenos Aires, Argentina, after graduating from Moody Bible Institute in Chicago, Illinois. My parents had a “special burden” for Jews and worked to bring them to “the knowledge of Jesus Christ.” In other words, they sought to convert Jews to Christianity–not just any Christianity, but the specific Christianity my parents believed in–a literal, “fundamental” understanding of Scripture made popular by Dwight L. Moody (1837-1899) and Cyrus I. Scofield (1843-1921).
I was raised on church and Sunday School, attending three services every Sunday for years. Later on, as a young adult in the United States, I added Wednesday night prayer meeting, heeding a pastor’s adage: “Those who love the church come on Sunday morning, those who love the pastor come on Sunday evening, but those who love the Lord come on Wednesday night.” I did not stop my regular church attendance (non-denominational, Baptist, Presbyterian, Reformed Episcopal, and just plain Episcopal–in that order) until well into my 40s. By then, I could no longer contort myself to fit the mold “church” demanded from me.
When I walked into St. Mark’s on that hot, humid Sunday in August, I immediately noticed that most of the congregants looked nothing like the “church people” I remembered. Granted, St. Mark’s is known in the community as the “gays and grays” church and that was evident. Same-sex couples, the over-50 crowd, and a smattering of African-American people made up the bulk of the congregation. This unconventional demographic struck me as positive, though. The disenfranchised and those living on the margins of society–aren’t these the people Jesus said would inherit the Kingdom of God?
The liturgy was familiar, reminding me of a time long ago when I enthusiastically joined in congregational worship, repeating prayers and creeds that go back centuries. “Almighty God…we acknowledge and bewail our manifold sins and wickedness which we…most grievously have committed…We do earnestly repent…Have mercy upon us.” And, “All glory be to thee, Almighty God…for thou…didst give thine only Son Jesus Christ to suffer death upon the cross for our redemption….”
I can no longer engage in such worship. To be sure, I brought my own religious baggage to church that day. Sin, wickedness, repentance, death on the cross–all of these concepts evoke in me an angry deity who demands nothing less than sinless perfection from “his” creatures. Since we are all born “in sin,” we deserve God’s wrath (eternal death) which we can escape only because Jesus, the “Son of God,” took the sins of humanity upon himself and died in our stead. We need just to accept it. That’s the story my parents were committed to and that’s the story I heard over and over during my church-going years.
I endured all of the appointed liturgy–standing, sitting, kneeling–while the interpretation of the narrative I had absorbed over a lifetime took up most of the space in my head. I couldn’t wait for it all to be over. I wanted to hear Dale preach. Surely he would have something valuable (from my perspective) to say.
Dale spoke about “beholding the likeness of God.” What is the likeness of God? To help illustrate his point, he used Alice Walker’s book, The Color Purple, speaking about Celie, a poor, “colored girl,” living in rural Georgia during the early part of the twentieth century. Celie’s image of God as an old, bearded, white man in the sky gives her neither comfort nor sustenance since “white people never listen to colored.” However, her construction of God changes when her new friend, Shug, with whom she has an intimate relationship, helps her “behold” God differently. Shug says, “God is inside you and inside everybody else. You come into the world with God. But only them that search for it inside find it…sometimes it just manifest itself even if you not looking….” Shug continues, “I think it pisses God off if you walk by the color purple in a field somewhere and don’t notice it…People think pleasing God is all God care about. But any fool living in the world can see it always trying to please us back.” “Beholding the likeness of God” in a new way allows Celie to love (comfort and sustain) herself. It empowers her. Eventually she can forgive those who have wronged her.
There was more, but I want to focus on the end of Dale’s sermon. Dale teaches a class titled, “Bible as Literature,” every summer at the university where both of us work. For six weeks, students read, reflect, and write about the Bible. On the last day of class, Dale asked his students, “According to the Bible, what is sin?” During the course of the summer session, students had moved beyond the idea of sin being equal to breaking rules or as Shug puts it, “People think pleasing God is all God care about.” The question hung in the air for a while. Then, one student from the back of the room replied, “Sin is not seeing God.” That’s it! Sin is walking by the color purple without noticing it.
My take on sin (if I must use the word) has another facet. I think sin is the attempt to make God “mine.” My Christian fundamentalist parents “just knew” who God is and “just knew” what God requires from us (humans). They appropriated God with their particular “beholding” of God and then foisted that vision on others. Hindu mythology (Baghavad Gita) tells us about Lord Krishna who went out every night to dance with the milkmaids in the forest. The girls dance and dance with their “sweet lord,” who has made himself so abundant, he can be in the arms of each and every girl. The moment a girl becomes possessive–the moment each girl imagines Krishna is her partner alone–he disappears. There is plenty of God to go around until one claims ownership (exclusivity). Then the fullness of God evaporates.
As I’ve written before, God is a symbol and symbols get their power through meanings humans inculcate into them. Shug uses inclusive imagery as she beholds the likeness of God–“inside you and everybody else.” When a milkmaid appropriates Krishna and demands exclusive rights to “her” deity, Krishna absents himself. Meaning embedded in symbols can enable us to live peaceful and abundant lives enjoying the fullness (presence) of God. Those same symbols can cause mayhem and destruction (absence of God) when we demand that others conform to the meanings “I” give them.
I think we see evidence of this mayhem and destruction in the group ISIS–a religious/political army of sorts currently wreaking havoc, mainly in the Middle East. Their vision of how to live, move, and have their being in this world is grounded in the surety of their own understanding of Islam and how it should be “lived out” in the here and now–restoring the caliphate, for example. Those who impede their forward thrust are subjected to violence and death.
My parents were adamant as well about how Truth, derived from their closely-held theological beliefs, should be expressed in day-to-day living. They expected others to get on board with them. Those who disagreed with their particular “beholding of God,” though, were subjected to a gentler fate from ISIS and their ilk. Shunning. Over time, though, that shunning (being outside the group that is supposed to nurture and sustain) suffocates any nascent “faith.” The stories and rituals (symbols), having been confined to a single meaning (Truth), lose their viability and power.
And so, I do not attend church (or any “house of worship”) regularly anymore.
Esther Nelson is an adjunct professor at Virginia Commonwealth University, Richmond, Va. She has taught courses on Human Spirituality, Global Ethics, Christian-Muslim Relations, and Religions of the World, but focuses on her favorite course, Women in Islam. She is the co-author (with Nasr Abu Zaid) of VOICE OF AN EXILE REFLECTIONS ON ISLAM and the co-author (with Kristen Swenson) of WHAT IS RELIGIOUS STUDIES? A JOURNEY OF INQUIRY.