I’m beginning to wonder if I’ve bitten off more than I can chew with this daily Advent blogging! Especially when my friend Wanda, an ordained minister and a therapist, asks Really Big Questions like these:
1) How do people change?
2) What contributes to personal transformation process?
3) How can I be part of/helpful to the transformation process of others?
4) The exploration of above has to include relationship...
I happen to know that in asking these questions, Wanda was thinking about her conversion experience to Christianity at the age of thirteen, so when I was trying to think of a story that might illustrate what I think about personal change, my own conversion to Christianity came to mind.
That’s a long story, but don’t worry, I only want to tell you about a little part of it that came up in a conversation I had recently with Michael. Our conversation was indirectly about another Really Big Question that Michael has posed, so I think I will try to tackle them all together: If in God's grace, there are many ways to lead a good human life, why choose to be a Christian? Or is it a choice at all?
I believe that God’s grace is bigger than the church, infinitely bigger. I reject any theology in which Christ is the only source of salvation. In a nutshell, if you are not a Christian? I for one am not worried about your soul. To insist that God is so small that God cannot work outside the church is blasphemy. To insist that a handful of scriptures validates this view is idolatry piled on top of blasphemy.
So why choose to be a Christian? Why indeed. Lord knows, we Christians have mucked things up so badly for so long, I think my church friend the Reverend Joe has a point when he suggests, with some conviction, that Jesus himself wouldn’t be a Christian in these days.
Is Christianity a choice? I think it most certainly is. In my case, at least, it is, and a pretty remarkable one, and almost ridiculously unlikely, truth be told. Until just recently, my experience of faith has often made me feel like a fraud. I empathize with folks who reject the church because it is narrow and literal and hates sex and requires magical thinking. I empathize because I am not really all that different from those folks – and yet here I am, inside the church, embracing my identity as a Christian, and grateful every single day.
I think it’s actually easier to articulate “why NOT be a Christian,” even for me, than to articulate “why BE a Christian.” I couldn’t possibly tell you all the reasons why I choose to be a Christian, because it’s an experience that is always evolving, ever changing, and will likely be something I’m forever working out. I’ve written about it a bit here. I’ll no doubt be writing about it many more times. But in a nutshell, I would say that my choice to be a Christian has to do primarily with four things: relationship, ethics, story and mystery.
I am a Christian in the first instance because I married a Christian. If I had married a Jew, I would most certainly be a Jew. But I didn’t, I married the preacher’s daughter, and through her became part of a Christian community that I can’t imagine my life without. My relationships in this community – so diverse, so wide-ranging, so unlikely to ever happen in any other context – are what sustain everything else in my life. So there’s that.
I also happen to find the Christian ethic compelling, at least when it isn’t pushed aside by the idolatry of Biblicism. Of course, at its heart Christian ethics are not that different than the ethics of any other faith, or even of a secular humanism, but I find Jesus’ telling of the Christian ethic compelling. In a nutshell, I would say that ethic is, as Michael preached a couple of months ago, that “People Matter.” Simple as that.
I also love the Christian story, the incarnational messiness of it, the rhythms of its liturgical year. It is a story that gives deep and meaningful shape to my life, a story into which I continue to grow and grow.
And the growing into that story is ultimately about becoming comfortable wrestling with, but also resting in, mystery. The mystery of the Christian faith often makes me uncomfortable, but it is also what calls me to be my best self. My faith helps me give form and word to my experience of that which is ineffable and mysterious and complex.
So that is why I choose to be a Christian: relationship, ethics, story, mystery. But truth be told, it’s ultimately all about relationship. It was my relationship with Julie that got me into the church in the first place, and it is my relationships – with God, with Christ, with the Body of Christ, and with a wide-ranging community of folks both in and out of the church – that mean everything to me.
Which brings me back to Wanda’s question: How do people change? For me, at least, I need to change when my life falls short of my ethics, as articulated for me most compellingly by Jesus. I want to change because I desire my life to be part of a story that is meaningful, and compelling and rich. I am called to change when I am drawn to mystery and allowed to wrestle with it but also rest in it. But first and foremost, I change because I am in relationship – with those who challenge me to remember my ethics when I get lazy, with those who tell me stories I might not otherwise hear, with those who are not afraid of mystery and invite me in.
Relationship is everything, which makes transformation everything, which is why I am a Christian. Thanks be to God.