I wrote this 5/29/08.
Do you believe in Jesus Christ as your Lord and Personal Savior? I’ve never easily handled that question without a truckload of baggage exploding in front of any one who may be nearby. I didn’t have many pleasant experiences growing up gay, in the South, in a secular family and being friends with Roman Catholics (Pastor Hagy, anyone?), surrounded by Christians whose first questions to newcomers were that one and “Welcome to the neighborhood, do you have a church home?” Nor does the former intrusion into my spiritual experience have any real meaning to me. I realize, though, that by responding with questions of clarification (What do you mean by “Lord” or Savior?”) or philosophy (Define, “to believe in”) I’ll come across as either arrogant or a lost cause.
So, do I believe in Jesus as my lord and personal savior? The honest answer is “I do and I don’t.” Do I feel that I should? Admittedly, yes. I confess that I don’t yield to Christ’s light in my heart enough to be honest in saying that he is Lord of my life. My ego is still too huge, my will too often takes priority over the promptings of the Spirit within (what I also call “God’s will.”) Have I experienced the Risen Christ so directly, charismatically, that I have been led out of danger? Yes. In that, I do know him as Savior. It’s as honest an answer as I can give, and interestingly enough, those with tender hearts who asked me what I believe often respond caringly.
In one of my classes at Earlham John Punshon once asked us what the different types of Quakers or Christians there were. We brainstormed different polarities: liberal or evangelical, progressive or conservative, fundamentalist or post-modernist, pastoral or unprogrammed. Every time, John shook his head negatively. “No,” he smiled, “thinking and unthinking.”
In truth, that has been my experience among my fellow Christians and Quakers. There are those of us who will be open to what we hear from other kinds of Christians and those who are not Christian. It may be an exercise, as what we hear may deeply trouble us. But we do contemplate, research, ask around, and pray on what we learn about others and ourselves. Those Evangelicals who have listened to me share my experience of Jesus and how I don’t call him “Lord” and who I can tell are thinking about what I say don’t reject me, even if they don’t agree with my experience or conclusions. Then there are those of us who immediately put a wall up to all things uncomfortable, contrary to our experience or which call into question the very core of our traditions. Easily we damn, dismiss, condemn, or rationalize that which we do not want to or cannot consider. We turn to our Bibles, our Faith and Practice, Quaker history books, or we team up with others like us against that which troubles us. We don’t use our God-given minds, trying to learn and understand that which is different or threatening. We don’t listen with our hearts, letting the Light guide us. We shun. We don’t seek to make peace, but instead we schism and judge.
Take for example my own hypocrisy: At one point I defended my unprogrammed meeting as the truest form of Quakerism, knowing full well that there are traditions now 150 years old that are not like the one I first knew and that unprogrammed Quakerism today is somewhat of a remnant of the earliest Quaker worship. It took worshipping in a pastoral meeting once and feeling the Spirit to finally put down that prejudice and quit dismissing what I didn’t like (where did I learn that prejudice, anyway? I wasn’t born Quaker)! I’ve condemned others for their rigid orthodox theology when I wouldn’t even budge on reconsidering the traditional (orthodox) Quaker practices! I’ve railed angrily against warmongers fighting for oil without having changed my own consumption habits. I could go on, but some of my skeletons prefer the closet. A friend pointed out one day that she is against the Iraq war, for simplicity, loves all world religions, but in a separate conversation told me that she drives 30 miles each day to a church that she likes better than the one next door to her, needs the big car to haul her children to the relatively upscale private school they all attend, and can’t stand Christians with their “our way or the high way mentality.” I still haven’t figured out how to get her to think about that, but I am busy at the moment with the plank in my own eye.
Besides, Christianity to me, as a Quaker, is more about experience, practicing one’s faith than belief. If you ask me what I believe about God, I may sound confused. I don’t believe in the gods of ancient Rome and Greece, for example. I just don’t see God as a human being with the flaws of humanity. I don’t see God as a being. Thinking about God makes my brain hurt, and frankly I’m not always interested in spending that much time trying to know the unknowable. God is, as my French Bible says, l’Eternel, (the Eternal One). And yet, I do sense God in my heart, through the actions of others, through the words of the Bible (sometimes, anyway) and through vocal ministry. Sometimes, it’s a glance of someone I don’t even know that can put me in touch with that measure of the Divine that I feel in my heart and that I have sensed in others (regardless of their identity). I sense what is. I sense I AM. It’s something that is so intimate that I cannot name, I can’t always distinguish where it begins and I end, and when I do, it somehow becomes less intimate if not less real.
Through Jesus, though, I do know more about God. When asked who he was and Jesus said “I am,” those around him fell to the ground. I AM. When I have experienced Jesus in my life, I have been so struck with wonder and awe, and the Light within me recognizes The One who Is. A Russian Orthodox friend of mine told me that when Jesus said “I Am” to those who fell before him, Jesus was saying that he was Yahweh. Yet, I can’t help but recall where Jesus asks to those who wish to know his identity “Who do you say that I am?” Indeed, this is where I am in my path. Trying to know Jesus, the Risen and the historical. The spiritual experiences that I’ve had of the risen Jesus aside, the historical Jesus, the man in whom the Spirit was so full, the man who embodied God, who many say was God, touches my heart every time I read the Gospels. I realize that he probably didn’t say everything in there, and yet I can feel that of God within me responding to the gospels. I know the Truth behind the words. I may have fallen in love with a character in a mythology, but it’s a love that comes from the Spirit because my mind can’t make heads or tails out of it. Isn’t that often what love is like, though? Through Jesus I see how God leads us to sacrifice ourselves in the name of love, to call forth the best in each other, to glorify him through being good and doing good, not for any other reason than it brings us into harmony with the pattern of the universe. Jesus shows us that God is always with us as we challenge the oppressors of state and organized religion. As we develop our relationship with God, we help bring some balm to the chaos in our lives, and hopefully are led to help calm the turbulent waters around us. We cast coals upon our enemies when we love and we heal our own souls (and hopefully our enemies’ souls) when we love. This is what Jesus did himself, and what he tries to lead millions of those who follow him (and maybe even those who don’t) to do.
Of course, we Christians are not without our flaws. I’ve never been proud of the awful treatment of minority groups by the dominant culture, of which I am a part. I paid enough attention in my history classes at Guilford to know that many Christians have committed egregious sins. I noticed, though, that Roman pagans didn’t like the Christians too much, that the Egyptian, Babylonian and Assyrian pagans cared little for the Hebrew peoples, and that the Hebrews themselves (according to my Bible) had their own sometimes violent ways of keeping purity in the tribes and keeping the pagans in at bay. The neo-nazi movements today generally aren’t Christian and oppose the race reconciliation movements led by so many religionists. Communist governments don’t like religion in general and have executed not a small number of violent actions against innocent people. Radical Islamists today abhor the very liberties that I as a progressive American cherish. The problem, I’ve come to realize isn’t religion and certainly isn’t Jesus, but it’s, well, people. It’s operating out of fear or ignorance and not of love. It’s using our gifts and talents not for the glory of God but instead for our own egos and pride and false-esteem.
When I was searching for a faith tradition in the eighties, I found in Quakerism a faith that accepted the universality of the Divine light, yet which stayed rooted in the mythology of Christianity, was guided by the power of the spiritually resurrected Jesus, the Light that enlightens everyone who comes into the world. I found a religion that instead of abandoning Christianity served up until recently as a prophetic voice to the wider church, less concerned with making converts of non-Christians and more concerned with pointing Christians back to the way of the cross, of selflessness and of love, of turning beyond ritual and form, beyond superstitions which oppress to the saving reality that they knew through Christ Jesus’ direct revelation and love.
It’s this love that I still continue to seek though perhaps it’s a hard road among Christians as a gay man and among liberal Quakers as a Christian. Love’s not always free from my fellow humans, sometimes it has to be earned, which is why I’m so thankful it comes without condition from my savior. Still, try as I might to find a new path among pagans or other Christians traditions, I’ve met with little success. Jesus calls me to be squarely in this religious society, asking me to get to know him more intimately as a Quaker. He is my way, a way of love, the Truth that does not steer me wrong, and the one who gives me life.