Am I a Christian?
(The following is an expansion of a piece by the same title I wrote for our writing group that met on Saturday, September 27)
My brother Paul is frequently asked about his older brother, that would be me, Gary. Sometimes it leads to a friend asking him, “Well, is Gary still a Christian?” This happens because so many of our mutual friends are from my past church experiences and bible classes, and these church friends are quite naturally and lovingly concerned about my faith and salvation since I left the church in 1999.
Paul is simply not sure how to answer their question. I have suggested he begin with, “Well, what do you mean by ‘Christian.’” That’s how I would have answered their question about my Christianity – but honestly I’m not sure where I would go from there with the conversation. So finally I decide to look in the mirror and simply, but also boldly, ask myself, “Gary, are you a Christian?”
The question brings up a lot. Mostly fear, of course – a natural hangover from my church days. But there is less fear than the terror I would have experienced in facing this question 20 years ago. So yes, I still experience fear, but it is a fear of which I am more curious about than panicked about.
As I now look into the mirror and settle into the question I realize I could literally write a book, or 10, or 100 on this topic. In many ways this question about my relationship to Christ and Christianity has been my entire life, if I’m honest. So for setting scope for this blog, let’s limit this inquiry to the past month, or rather, the past week…
Sunday, September 21, 2014. Pat and I attend a Local Episcopal Church for the 8:00AM service and 9:15 Adult Formation Class.
8:00AM Service: How do I experience this worship service? It is still hard to relate to the service and its formal liturgy. I notice that I struggle with the elevated position given the Bible – treating it like a “sacred object” and basing everything in the service on it – the liturgy, the three liturgical readings and the sermon. I struggle with the reciting of the Nicene Creed, laid out in 325AD and which makes statements that lead to more questions for me than answers. I struggle of course with the confession of sins – which draws me back to my Lutheran days of “poor miserable sinner.” I struggle with the Passing The Peace – superficial brief greetings to and from people I don’t yet know. This also touches my German shyness. I struggle with the Communion Service – where we commemorate Christ’s work of redemption through his blood shed on the cross in payment for our sins thereby taking on the punishment God requires of us due to our sins. This service, then, in many foundational ways, just isn’t where I am these days.
On to the 9:15 Adult Formation Class. I enjoy the people attending this class, especially the three people sitting at the table with Pat and me. There are four tables in all making up the class – about 20 people — and the format is to take in the Epistle lesson for the day, today from the letter of St. Paul to the Philippians. But, not having read the bible for study purposes since leaving the church 15 years ago, the letter strikes me as just that, a letter, and not a document elevated to the status of inspired and inerrant word of God and as such the ultimate basis and our source for our spiritual growth. The five at our discussion table engage, but in a haphazard way – it seems we grope through the lesson. Interesting to hear various views that come up, but not very inspiring – and in the end I’m not sure what each of us got out of it in terms of “faith formation.” We did, however, enjoy the fellowship.
Sunday evening, realizing that on Monday we are going to be meeting with Pastor “Joe,” the head pastor of the Local Episcopal Church, and “Sandy,” a leader of the Adult Formation Class (not their real names), I take a crack at preparing an adult lesson for the text we used Sunday morning. How would I have led the class? To my surprise, the discussion questions and format I would offer just flow out of me effortlessly. I’m not sure what I will do with this writing, but I was certainly moved to write it out for whatever reason.
Monday noon: Pat and I meet with Pastor Joe and Sandy. I’m surprised that the meeting goes on for 2 hours. And it was very engaging, just what I enjoy. We talk at length about adult faith formation. Pastor Joe says how hard adult formation is – the need to get past the “I’m confirmed, my kids are confirmed, what else is there?”-stage in many adults attending the church. Picking up the Mary and Martha story from the bible (the one where Martha prepares the meal while Mary sits with Jesus, taking in his presence and words), I speak of knowing about “Martha” work in the many church programs going on, but where is the “Mary” work of inner growth at the Local Episcopal Church?
Then out of the blue Sandy asks if I had any ideas for the class. Her question surprises me. I pause. Then I break out what I prepared. This leads to more discussion. They want to meet with others later in order to discuss how possibly to incorporate some of these ideas into the program.
Then Pastor Joe looks me in the eye and asks, “Gary, if we follow your agenda, would you and Pat come?” The question takes me aback. I give a tentative, “Yes, I think so.” I am shocked and somewhat embarrassed at my ambivalence – it was my set of ideas after all. Why would I not come?
Monday evening: Later that evening, as I sit with Pastor Joe’s question, I realize I am not sure I would be drawn to the formation class that I suggested. What I laid out was good old-fashioned Bible study the way I taught it for 20 years at St. Paul, before I left the church 15 years ago. Engaging, yes. Applications-oriented, for sure. Yet, I do not think this is what we are looking for in adult formation – in fact, I sense it would possibly be a step backwards from where Pat and I are. So what would be a step forward in our own adult spiritual formation? What would support a step forward in our respective spiritual journeys, and where would such steps lead each of us? I am not really sure.
Tuesday evening: It’s 8:00PM. Pat reneges on our plans to go for a walk after supper. Instead, she suggests reading books. I say sure, and that I’ll work more on the Pathwork lecture I have been studying. She invites me to try something else, something other than the Pathwork lecture that I was working with all day. I reluctantly agree and pick up, for no particular reason, A New Christianity for a New World by John Shelby Spong. Bishop Spong, a retired but still popular Episcopal speaker, is coming to Cincinnati in November, I’ve bought a number of his books, but have not been moved to read them or sign up for his lectures.
We sit on the couch. Pat reads her book. I read the introduction to Bishop Spong’s book. I warm to his style as he gives the background leading up to this book. Then, finishing the introduction, I get to Chapter 1: A Place to Begin: The Old Is No More; The New Is Not Yet. Spong begins Chapter 1 with the Christian Fundamentals as laid out between 1910 and 1915 in response to Darwin’s teachings. Back then these Christian leaders decided that there were five fundamental beliefs required if one was to call oneself a Christian: 1) The bible is the literal revealed word of God, 2) Jesus was born of a virgin, 3) Jesus died as an atonement for our sins, 4) Jesus rose physically from the dead on the first Easter Sunday, and 5) The second coming of Jesus and the judgment are coming – all will be raised from the dead, some will be going to heaven, others to hell – for eternity.
Bishop Spong then went on in the chapter to say how he personally does not hold any of these five points to be true in the literal sense they were laid down. With this statement, he really has my attention, as well as my “YES!” (Open the three pages where Spong lays out the five Christian fundamentals and speaks of his view of them.)
But I am then shocked when he goes on to say, “I am a Christian.” He really has my attention now! Could I be a Christian the way he is a Christian! Can I reject what he rejects (i.e., the fundamentalist’s five tenants of the Christian faith) and still be a Christian?
Wednesday: We have a 1-hour Skype session with our couple counselors Sage and Anthony. We are astonished at the thought put on the table that “Holy” and “Sexual” coexist in our beingness. But that astonishment and what is flowing in Pat and me from it must wait for another blog, perhaps…
Thursday: It’s 7:00AM. Pat and I have our regular daily 2-hour coffee time. All of this Christ material and sexuality, and even more topics come up in my mind. I am on fire with thoughts. I could write chapters or even books on what is arising in me. I can hardly wait to talk to a neighbor friend we have who is also wrestling these issues. I can hardly wait to have further discussions with Pastor Joe and Sandy about adult formation.
Seeing how energized I am on all fronts, Pat reminds me that in the couples’ session on Wednesday Sage suggested that, with the “fine mind” that I have, I was married to thoughts and ideas. Pat then notes how hard my first divorce was 14 years ago, and notes further that I may have to go through a second even more painful divorce, a divorce from my fountain of ideas, if I am to be truly and fully in relationship with her in the way we say we long for. I can feel the force of her words. Is this divorce from ideas now being asked of me in order to experience a deeper union with Pat? Is this a dualistic “either/or” (either a full relationship with Pat OR a full engagement with my “idea machine”) or can it be a unitive state of “both/and”? The question is real, and I know intellectually that the “both/and” answer is correct, but more growth is required to step into this unitive state of consciousness on a felt basis.
Finally, in words that shock me, Pat says, Gary, in listening to you this morning, all I can say is that you are a Christian! Look at how much of your life – 50 years probably – has been devoted to bible study as related to Christ. This has been followed by 14 years of deep, very deep actually, study of the Pathwork Lectures – all so focused on Christ in a new, freeing, and refreshing way. Then you have your devotion to Adyashanti and his 24-hour teaching series on Christ (summarized in his book, Resurrecting Jesus: Embodying the Spirit of a Revolutionary Mystic), and to James Finley and his teachings on Meister Eckhart and Christ (Meister Eckhart’s Living Wisdom: Indestructible Joy and the Path of Letting Go). Finally, notice your many many lengthy blog entries on Christ. Clearly you have a devotion to Jesus Christ. What other person do you know, even among pastors, who has spent this much time focused on and devoted to such material all related to Jesus Christ?
I take in Pat’s words. I see that all my life I have been overly focused on fundamentalist teachings about Christ as defining what true Christianity is. I have seen Fundamentalist Christianity as the only true form of Christianity, and then have strongly recognized and said, “I am not that!” In this overly narrow definition of Christianity I see the basis of my resistance to say, “I am a Christian.”
But I also note that, although I say I do not hold these conservative fundamentalist stances as being true for me, I have not yet allowed that old Christian Fundamentalist foundation to really be torn down and buried. For whatever reason I have always hung onto that narrow definition of Christianity. Now if there are other forms of true Christianity that I could explore, can I let go of that old foundation, the “old wine skins,” and truly take “new wine skins” and individuate fully into the unique Christian I, Gary, might really be? The thought startles me. I, a Christian? Could it really be?
Suddenly a wave of energy comes over me. From within I feel free and alive! Reborn? And I notice further that I do not need to finish his book and follow where Bishop Spong has gone since he removed the “fundamentalist constraint” in defining his own brand of Christianity.
Bishop Spong through this book, so timely and synchronistically introduced into my life, has done the job I’ve needed, to tear down the old. Now I can surrender to Christ within. I can surrender to God as my Christed nature builds my unique form of Christianity on my own foundation. This is my Call!
Yes, Pat and I have now signed up for Bishop Spong’s lectures in November, but the blessing has been in his giving me my freedom to be Christian in my own unique way. And Pat can be Christian in her own unique way. And ditto for my brother Paul, Pastor Joe, and Sandy, and actually all of us. Yes indeed, the truth of Christ within, the true “good news” of the gospel it seems to me, sets us free, even from some forms of “Christianity”!
Shared in love, Gary