[Note, June 2016: This post was written in the aftermath of an experience of intense spiritual desolation that had caused me to step back from Christianity. While this is no longer the case, I leave it here out of respect for my journey and the rightful place of doubt, questioning, and wrestling with God in all of our spiritual journeys. And because these are things that are still beautiful and transformative about the Gospel!]
I grew up in a Christian home, was a committed Christian for thirteen years of my adult life, obtained a master’s degree in Christian theology, and was for a time on the path towards ordination to the priesthood in the Eastern Orthodox Church. It’s safe to say that Christianity has played an immeasurably large role in my life.
While circumstances in my life are such that I’m no longer sure what I believe, there are many lessons from Christianity that I hope and trust will never leave me. Here are a few:
1. A Place in the World: Our Western culture as it stands has two opposite yet coexisting neuroses: extreme narcissism and low self-esteem. One of the things I appreciate most in Christianity is that it provides a place for human beings in the universe, and one that’s neither too lofty nor too low. We are each and every one of us both precious and completely unnecessary. The world is not about me and I shouldn’t expect it or anyone in it to conform to my desires, yet I am still “wonderfully and fearfully made” and “every hair on my head is numbered”. This gives every human person and life dignity, but it is a dignity that leaves no room for narcissism.
2.Love wins: I haven’t read Rob Bell’s book by this name, so I can’t comment on that, but it hits on the overwhelming sense within the New Testament that Love is the defining characteristic of God, and therefore also of the universe as it was created. There is no dualism of good and evil or love and hatred. Rather, there is Good and there is Love and they will stop at nothing to put the world to right.
3. Life wins: The Bible begins with the entrance of death (symbolized by the barring of Adam and Eve from the Tree of Life) as a perversion of the created order, and ends with the emptying of Sheol/Hades (the place where people were believed to go when they died) and the restoration of the Tree of Life in the Eden-mirroring New Jerusalem. Without denying the reality of physical death and the pain and trauma that it is, Christianity marginalizes death and turns it into something not to be feared. I lost a good friend to cancer a couple years ago and her strength in facing death boldly and lovingly was humbling and a telling example of what death can become for Christians. Here is what I wrote at the time:
She met fear with faith, suffering with patience, and … death with peace. (Her last words on Facebook were “GOD IS GREAT…ALL THE TIME.”) One of my great heroes, Fr Alexander Schmemann (of blessed memory), said the following about Christian death: “In Christ death itself has become an act of life for he has filled it with Himself, with His love and His life. And if I make this new life of Christ my own, mine this hunger and thirst for the Kingdom, mine this expectation of Christ, mine this certitude that Christ is life, then my very death will be an act of communion with life, for neither life nor death can separate us from the love of Christ.” I can’t think of the end of Tiina’s earthly life without thinking of these words; truly her death was an act of communion with life.
4. Grace: When I was trying to develop this list, I had a collection of separate ideas that were so closely related I just grouped them here. Grace means many things, but essentially it is living life with an open hand rather than a clenched fist. It is choosing to be kind over being right. It is giving people the benefit of the doubt whether they deserve it or not. It’s thinking twice before saying something hurtful or lashing out. It’s about forgiveness.
5. The Beatitudinal Ethic: Best just to quote the Man himself:
Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.
Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.
Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.
Blessed are the merciful, for they will be shown mercy.
Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.
Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.
Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me. Rejoice and be glad, because great is your reward in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you. (Matt. 5:3ff)
I know some people who have mixed feelings about the Beatitudes because, if they were to fall into the wrong hands, they can easily be turned into tools of manipulation and subservience. And I can see that. But as a voluntary way of life, they are beautiful. They turn the expectations of human experience on end and reveal a way of living that is free from power struggle and ego. They are therefore powerfully countercultural.
6. Judge Not…: While sadly many Christians seem to have missed the rather significant sections of their New Testaments commanding them not to be judgmental, it was clearly an important part of Jesus’ teaching. It’s less a prohibition against judgment than it is a command to be cautious and gracious in judgment: “Judge not lest you be judged”; “Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in your brother’s eye and pay no attention to the plank in your own eye?”; “For with what judgment you judge, you will be judged; and with the measure you use, it will be measured back to you”; “Let whoever who is without sin cast the stone.” The point is we’re all in the same boat: we all do things we shouldn’t and don’t do things we should. It’s hypocritical to get bent out of shape over someone else’s problems when you have your own. Which leads nicely to….
7. Keep your eyes on your own plate: This is a saying I’ve encountered predominantly in Eastern Orthodox circles, but it nicely summarizes a deep Christian truth related to grace and judgment: The best course of action is to look at yourself and concern yourself with your own life rather than your neighbour’s. The saying comes from fasting seasons; for about half the year, Orthodox Christians canonically fast from meats, dairy, eggs, and heavy oils. However, canons are meant to be applied contextually, and there are many reasons why the fast might be eased or altered. There is also simply the truth that many people don’t bother fasting. The saying reminds the faithful that another believer’s fast is no matter of their concern. If you are concerned that the fast be kept properly, then make sure you keep it faithfully and leave it at that. The principle extends to life in general: If you are concerned about gossip, make sure you don’t gossip. If you are concerned about the state of the family in society, make sure your family lives up to your standards. The moment your eyes drift to your neighbour’s life instead of yours, things start to unravel.
8. Just Accountability: The flip side of “judge not” and “eyes on your own plate” is that we are ultimately accountable. We will have to answer for what we say and do and don’t do. But the One to Whom we must account is not a fallible human judge. The Judge will judge in Wisdom and Truth and Justice, everyone judged mercifully and according to what they have been given. Even if one doesn’t believe in God or final Judgment, the concept is still applicable and beautifully so: It simply means living as though what one does and says matters. And it does. God or no God, what we do and how we live affects those around us. And we mustn’t lose sight of that. The Orthodox have a beautiful practice that marks the start of Lent that demonstrates this: Everyone in the community prostrates themselves in front of everyone else present, individually, and asks for and receives forgiveness, whether they have interacted with each other or not, even if they are complete strangers. Why? Because we are all connected and our actions, good and bad, matter.
9. Brokenness and Wholeness: It doesn’t take a hard look around us and within us to see that things aren’t as they should be. In many ways we are all wounded warriors, walking through the world with deep pains, struggles, insecurities and anxieties. Christianity offers hope that these can be overcome, that we can be healed and put back together again. Some may say this is a pessimistic view of humanity, but I see it as being realistic and encouraging. It’s okay that I’m not all I think I can and should be now. I don’t have to be and can’t be expected to be, but I am also encouraged to work at it, to continuously improve and change and grow into, not who I want to be, but who I really already am. And that is a beautiful thing to me.