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On several recent occasions, I’ve been asked by friends or acquaintances to explain briefly why I am religious, or why I am a Christian. They find it curious that someone with whom they enjoy socializing could actually believe all that stuff about Jesus, the Resurrection, the Holy sacraments and so forth. And they find it odder still that one could be committed to that old whipping boy – organized religion.
When this happens I can’t help but get the feeling that the good people who are asking these questions might not really want to dig deeply into this subject. Would they, in fact, want to sit down with me one morning and hear what I have to say about being a disciple of Jesus? Are they open to exploring the Christian faith with someone for whom it has ultimate meaning? Or have they have moved on and are probably not open to being dragged back toward some version of Christian orthodoxy by a relic of the past like me? After all, people not interested in being serious about Christianity are clearly in the majority in 2018.
So, partially out of frustration, I decided to put down in writing how to answer someone who is actually curious about why I am a practicing Christian and why I think it matters. The next time someone wants to have a conversation about my religious beliefs, I will simply give them a copy of this document to read. Some will read it. Many won’t. That sounds cynical, but it’s based on the observation that many people don’t want to be burdened with serious thoughts that they identify as religious. In any case, what follows is my attempt to a) explain myself and b) more importantly, interest others in this business of discipleship.
Why I am a disciple of Jesus and why it matters
First some personal history without which I couldn’t possibly address the question at hand.
Regular church attendance as a child
It was my good fortune to be brought up in the 1950s and ‘60s in a family in which weekly church attendance was the norm. That influence on me cannot be overstated. By the time I went to college, attending church with some regularity was firmly ingrained in my psyche as something good people did. And I confess that I attended church because of this sense of duty for the next 30 years or so. Most readers probably will be put off by this because it’s a shallow reason to worship on Sundays. However, it has been part of a recurring theme in my life as a Christian — obedience. And, during those years I was being obedient to a sense of duty ingrained in me as a child regarding being in church on Sunday. Sometimes obedience is the precursor of faith. And, yes, I do worry that children who don’t have the benefit of being churched at a young age will find it difficult to access the faith as a teen or adult.
Early role models
My role models have always been people (mostly women) who showed me how to live a life that meant something. My mother has been especially important as a role model, and to this day is a regular attendee at Sunday morning Eucharist. Another early role model was our German governess, whom we called Toto. Toto, born a Roman Catholic, later became a Protestant, and was my earliest example of a Christian life. To my young eyes, she was an icon of virtue, kindness, and humility. She shared her active faith with us and I was devoted to her example although I was not very adept at following it. Not all my siblings share my (idealized?) view of Toto, but I have never even been tempted to revise my totally positive view. I know how I felt about her and she shaped me in her own quiet way.
My next role models were all members of the Salesian Order in Haiti. They each shared one beautiful thing that animated their lives. They had given up everything to work with poor children in the most difficult environments imaginable. Sister Catherine, Pere Volel, and Sister Nicolle each made the ultimate commitment to deny self and serve the poor. And their total commitment and total self-denial was something that overwhelmed me in the late 60’s and still does today. Sr. Catherine, an Italian, came to Haiti in 1935 and remained there for 55 years. During those 55 years, she returned home to Italy twice for brief visits. As a spoiled rich kid from the US, these saints ( that’s how I thought of them) represented the pinnacle of what a Christian could do to emulate Jesus. So, although I knew I could never be like them, I thought, and still do, that theirs is the example toward which I must strive. The key to understanding why I felt this way is that these role models were supremely happy and fulfilled. They had given up one life to gain another more fulfilling one — the great paradox of the Gospel. And, understanding at some level this great paradox is another recurring theme of my life as a Christian. My early role models — Toto and those three Salesians — have not faded into insignificance as I have aged and the world changed. They remain as influential as ever in terms of what Christian life can mean at its highest level.
Hit-and-Run Church Going: 1974-1988
By the time my wife Lucy and I had settled in the Northeast in 1974, I would describe myself as a committed Christian without deep roots in the Church as an institution. I wasn’t unchurched but had no strong ties to a church community. Of course, I considered myself an Episcopalian and had even served on a vestry in Nicaragua when I worked for Church World Service in 1973. But my church attendance was what I describe as hit and run. That is to say, I attended Sunday worship and then fled before being trapped into attending coffee hour or having to meet people.
I didn’t want to be part of the church in the sense of sharing Christian community. I am shy by nature. And, like many of you reading this, I didn’t know what I was missing.
Really Becoming Churched: 1988-1995
All that changed in the late 1980s when we moved to North Salem, N.Y. I was dragooned into coffee hour by a wonderful woman named Suzy Margolin and, within a very short time, I had been asked to serve as junior warden of the parish, St. James, North Salem. Our children were at the age when they could attend church and Sunday School, so, by 1990 I was a fully involved churchman. I served on search committees, ran search committees, served as both junior and senior warden, was a lay eucharistic minister, trained and scheduled acolytes, and even shoveled the snow in the winters. I was as active a churchman as a lay person could be, both liturgically and otherwise, by 1995. And it wasn’t drudgery. It was, to me, important work for the church — a living thing that mattered.
Burning Bridges: 1995-2000
During the mid 1990s I sensed a distinct feeling that I was meant to do something more within the church, that I was to make a greater commitment to God than I had already made. It was vague feeling at first but began taking on a more defined shape after a deacon from the Diocese of New York spoke at St. James about what deacons do. After that service, Lucy said something like, “I can’t believe you haven’t decided to do that yet,” referring to seeking ordination as a deacon. I replied, “Are you kidding? I’m not giving up my Saturdays for 3 years.” Well, that flippant answer didn’t prove accurate, and by 1996 I was in the process of discernment to become a permanent deacon in the Diocese of New York. I remember feeling the desire to make a lifetime commitment, to burn the bridge behind me, and to serve the poor, the sick, the weak and the lonely. I also liked the regimentation and the requirement for obedience. There is that word again – obedience.
Around that time, another event galvanized my desire to commit to the church. I attended a Cursillo retreat in 1997 and the experience blew me away. I was blessed with what we call a mountaintop experience one afternoon in the chapel. While praying, I was overwhelmed by the presence of Jesus there with me. It was a certainty and a great blessing. It was an experience from which I will draw strength for the rest of my life.
During my formation for ordination (1996-2000), I was given many tools for pursuing a career in the church – spiritual direction, study of scripture, lectio divina, homiletics, silent retreats, etc. A month before my 50th birthday I was ordained at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine in New York.
Ordained Life: 2000-present
Even before my ordination, I was moved to a new parish – St. Mark’s, Mt. Kisco, and also assigned to the staff of the Rural and Migrant Ministry. The two priests I worked for and with, Stephen Voysey and Richard Witt, gave me plenty of new challenges and taught me a great deal in the ensuing four years. It was a good mix of parish work and non-parish work for the Migrant Ministry. I had many interesting experiences with the migrant farmworkers whom we represented. It got me started in the pro-union movement that would have been anathema to my fiercely anti-union ancestors. My job with the farmworkers was simple. I was to represent the Church standing with the poor. Upon moving to Rhode Island in 2004, I became a deacon in the Diocese of Rhode Island and have served in four different parishes. My current parish is St. John’s, Newport and I have been there for 5 years. Simultaneously with my parish assignments, I have run a homeless drop-in shelter in Providence and a public charity in Haiti. I do a good deal of pastoral visiting with the elderly and homebound simply because I have an affinity for it and am good at it.
Starting in October 2018, I will also be serving on the staff of St. Anna’s in New Orleans under the rector, Fr. Bill Terry.
End of Chronology
What I believe
I believe in a historical Jesus who walked the Earth some 2000 years ago and performed miracles and healings while preaching a gospel of love and reconciliation. I believe that this Jesus was “God made visible” and that his teachings and ministry tell us what God is like. I believe he was crucified, died, was buried, and rose from the dead and appeared to his disciples in bodily form. I believe this because of the accounts of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John and because of the effect these events had on his disciples. I also believe this because of the “great cloud of witnesses” over the centuries who have testified to the church and the world.
I believe that we experience God in three ways: as Father/Creator; as Jesus our Redeemer who shows us how to live; and as Spirit or “still small voice” that guides us through life as a companion, and who is present when we gather with other Christians. (I hasten to add that this is my view of the Trinity and not an attempt to define it in some orthodox fashion. For that, I refer you to the Creeds. And if you are very interested, try reading the Creed of Athanasius.)
The two principal sacraments of the Church are Holy Baptism and Holy
Communion/Eucharist/the Mass. I believe that they are the indispensable acts of a Christian life.
Personally, I believe in weekly attendance at Mass at a minimum. The other sacraments available to Christians that I commend are the following: Penance (individual Confession), Unction (anointing of the sick and those near death with Holy Oil), Confirmation, Holy Orders, and Holy Matrimony.
I believe in the One Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church, but I respect others who are of a different mind regarding their choice among the various sorts of Christian churches. I worked with many Pentecostals in Nicaragua and found them to be wonderful examples of active Christian disciples. Their style of ecstatic worship is not for me but that is ok. Christians have all sorts of ways to worship God and I, like Gandhi, respect them all. But as a matter of personal preference I prefer Anglo Catholicism. It is a rather small branch of the Anglican Communion that adheres to tradition Catholic norms of worship and, in my view, conducts worship in the “beauty of holiness.” I am a Catholic Christian. That doesn’t mean Roman Catholic. Being of the Roman church is but one option for the Catholic Christian. Others are Eastern Orthodox and Anglican. The Episcopal Church in the U.S. offers a wide range of worship styles ranging from almost entirely Protestant to full-fledged Anglo Catholicism, my choice. I think different people like different worship styles; so I am glad many are offered.
Here is where I am not very orthodox. I am not attracted to exclusionism – the notion that there is but one path to God. There is one path for me and I know what it is; but, I don’t think Jesus wanted us to go around proclaiming who is “saved” and who isn’t. I don’t even know what that means. Neither do I know what happens to our immortal soul upon our death. However, I live in the Christian hope of resurrection and I believe that Christians need not fear death. Jesus’ resurrection put death in its place. Needless to say, I don’t know anything about heaven or hell. But, like you, dear reader, I am going to find out one day.
I believe that obedience builds faith and that it is a lifelong process. I think it’s difficult (not impossible) to cultivate a faithful life outside the Church. Further, I believe Jesus, at the Last Supper, commanded us to continue to remember his sacrifice via the Eucharist and that such a remembrance is essential for the Christian life. And this means being part of a Christian family. I believe that I need to obey my bishop and the priest to whom I report, even when I might not agree with them. I believe that I need to read and re-read my ordination vows and obey them.
The Great Paradox of the Gospel
Jesus repeatedly told his disciples and followers that to gain the kingdom they had to give up everything else. His followers were urged to take up their cross and follow him. He taught self-sacrifice and service. What I believe is that self-sacrificial service to others is the one true path to happiness in this life. Thus, the life of service is its own reward. And it is not a reward for the afterlife, whatever that is. It is a reward for this life right now. If my life is devoid of service to those who can use my help, I will be miserable and deserve to be. I have found this is true. So when someone tells me how nice I was to have visited a lonely old woman, I can tell them truthfully that I did it to make myself happy. Jesus taught that. And that is the Good News of the Gospel of Jesus.
Note: The picture at the top of this blog is St. Catherine of Siena, my favorite Saint.