Being a Christian…in Your Time of Life
November 26, 2011, 10:25 am
Filed under: identity, life of Spirit | Tags: , , , , ,

“You cannot be a Christian alone.” I have heard this numerous times, doubting it only half of them. When I was growing up, fiercely differentiating from my family and previous shells of identity, I heard it from those grieving my growth. I could no longer grow toward spiritual maturity as I was—I needed to find out what Christian meant “alone” or “apart from them”—so I insisted I had to be Christian “on my own.” After college, I heard it from my new pastor in Pasadena, observant of my struggle to be shaped by a congregation in exchange for the nourishment such community was providing. I recognized that my wilderness years in college of “being on my own” with respect to faith community were just that—wilderness years—but I struggled to understand new directions within an aging congregation. I was being nourished, blessedly so, but felt both inadequate and a bit confused.

In graduate school, I heard it as rationale for common worship, for deepening of faith identity as a Reformed-Presbyterian Christian in a rapidly changing church and world. “You don’t know what Christian means, except for when and how other Christians show you,” I learned. Most recently, I heard it from an author and “friend of God” I met recently at Table. She runs a food pantry out of her church in a large American city, a way of being at Table in which she learns regularly that you need other people to be Christian. She describes them as she encounters them: “the wrong people” whom we must embrace. Outcasts. Those who do not fit “our” norms. In her gentle, sardonic style, she quips, “The thing that sucks about being a Christian is that God actually lives in other people.” (Sara Miles, Jesus Freak, xvii). “You cannot be a Christian alone, by yourself, on your own.”

For the first time in a long time, however, I find myself asking questions of this truism again. What does it mean, exactly? Does it mean “without other Christians”? Does it mean “without other people?” Or does it mean simply what it says, “not alone, by yourself, on your own?” If it’s the latter, you see, it opens up all of nature, Creation. You can be surrounded by the natural world and “feel companioned,” potentially in the power of the Spirit of Christ, the uncreated Word of Creation, unconstrained by other human beings at all. What exactly does the truism hold to be true?

Listening to scripture, tradition, their interwoven voices within my own tapestry of faith, I’m beginning to think one’s “time of life” or “stage of development” figures in greatly here. [Note of aside: I prefer “time of life” because it has a little less sociological or psychological undertow to it. “Stage of development” brings its ordering obsessions to bear on something that is gift and gift alone. Faith is the gift, and assessing the perceivable quality of your gift in contrast to others’ gifts remains suspect for good reason in all kinds of cultures. Gentle nod with respect to James Fowler (Stages of Faith), but assessing where you are on his ladder of stages seems less important than simply being thankful you’re on the ladder at all. Assessment may even push you right off the ladder without awareness that you’ve fallen.] I think the truism in my attention here speaks to all the meanings I’ve suggested, depending upon Spirit’s intention and direction along the way. Allow me a bit of leeway to say more, albeit with some contexts outside of specifically Christian discourse.

A friend of mine from some time past felt a pull to explore Buddhist tradition(s). She is Christian and her husband is Buddhist. Her embodied experience offered her sensations and images leading her in this direction, from the inside. From the outside, where I could observe and listen, it looked like this invitation was one to strengthen their marriage, to offer avenues of open-hearted conversation about religious-philosophical traditions that were completely absent in their home, up to that point. The invitation seemed to feed a hunger within both of them, in other words. So, as her spiritual companion in Christian community, I began to listen and pray for guidance on how to be in support of Spirit’s intention. I became curious about what Buddhist communities were right here in town. I began to do a little research. Lo and behold, I discovered a Buddhist center less than 10 miles from home. Had never known it was there! Essays from the Journal of Buddhist-Christian Studies found their way to my Inbox, so I shared them. I shared what I was receiving, and suggested we visit the Buddhist center. “If you want to know about Buddhism,” I reasoned, “You need other Buddhists to show you what and how Buddhists do what they do. You cannot be Buddhist alone,” I heard myself say. Her husband practiced in such a way as to disagree with that argument, but then her interest in the Center drew him into the Center. His path deepened as their conversations deepened. He became a leading contributing member at the Center, strengthening their community and practice, strengthening his own. He arguably became a better Buddhist, whatever that might mean, because of being around other Buddhists.

So was that a Christian overlay or imposition onto another tradition or does the truth within our truism figure into spiritual practice, regardless of tradition? As I prayed and listened to that question, I began to find all kinds of Buddhist texts on spiritual friendship, “friends on the path,” as the “whole of the spiritual life.” (Thich Nhat Hanh, Friends on the Path: Living Spiritual Communities, Parallax Press, 2002; Subhuti, with Subhamati, Buddhism and Friendship, Windhorse, 2004). It seems within multiple lineages of Buddhist teachings, one cannot be Buddhist on one’s own. It seems to be a Buddhist truism too, though in contrast to many Western practitioners of the teachings.

Therefore, part of the wisdom does seem to be that beginning a spiritual path requires living with “its tradition and practitioners,” to know all that it may entail. Particularly as one is beginning, it is crucial to be around others on that precise, same, traditional-path. To jump back into my own circles, then, one needs other Christians to know what being Christian looks like, how to access traditional resources, how to be held accountable to a tradition’s wisdom and truth. When I was learning what it meant to be faithful, my parents and my congregation were teaching me what it meant to be Christian in a Reformed-Presbyterian fashion, albeit with a bit of Baptist and Brethren nuances in the mix. (My parents’ communities before we became Presbyterian). My friend’s invitation to begin exploring Buddhist traditions-practices required being with other Buddhists. The location also strengthened a long-duration Buddhist: her husband.

But what if you’re on the other end of the path, in your eighties, with decades of lived experience in a particular tradition? I’m thinking of my grandmother who was raised Brethren, became Evangelical-United-Brethren, then became United Methodist. She raised four boys in a local congregational setting, accompanying the choir her husband (my grandfather) directed, and taught in Sunday School. She was a staunch leader in the congregation and lived her Scripturally-inerrant faith to the end. After more than fifty years of marriage, her husband died and her sons with their families lived in locations across the country. She thrived in her retirement community but lived alone. I learned after her death that most evenings, she would spend evenings “alone” but very much in God’s presence. She spoke with God, cooked with God, laughed with God, cried with God. God was her Beloved, though she was ostensibly alone. Clearly, given her decades of church-association, she was still within the circle of Christians. But by that time, she didn’t need other Christians to be Christian, herself. Shaped so long in the discipleship way of Jesus Christ, she could be Christian alone. I find myself asking, therefore: If you’ve steeped in decades of Christian tradition, been shaped by other Christians for most of your life, can one be a Christian living as a hermit in nature? Can you spend most of your time alone, even be asked by Spirit to live a solitary life, in order to be most faithful in your life as a Christian? The Desert Fathers and Mothers would say yes. So would Thomas Merton. Being alone yet not alone at all…when the time of life is ripe so to do.

The middle of the path, at least as I’ve been given to know it, may also mean one cannot be a Christian without other people, people who are not Christian at all. Or even worse, those who are Christian but not in a manner you find legitimate yourself. So how does that work, then? People who are not Christian, who do not practice or believe Christian things that you find essential…they are shaping you into a better Christian? That proposition goes against the grain of most Christian propositions, as we hear them in smaller community-life and global media. We need non-Christians to know our own Christianity?

Two lenses may help flesh this out a bit. The food pantry of St. Gregory of Nyssa Church offers a good glimpse. Sara Miles experienced a radical conversion into Christian discipleship by receiving the sacrament of communion. Such polite talk for how she experienced it, describes it herself. She might say: she ate Jesus, found Jesus inside of her, and became more like him, almost against her will. She was hungry, wanted to be fed, wanted the water of baptism in the end. A year after her conversion, she became baptized, the same weekend she began to gather the poor, the homeless, the hungry to the Table of the food pantry. Her stories tell the age-old collision of Jesus’ people—these outcasts—colliding with the nice congregational membership of a class-conscious artsy community intent upon liturgical reform of the Episcopal Church USA. In various ways, she learned—again and again, as she continues to learn—she needs these other people, those not recognized by her own precious worshipping community, to be Christian. I almost wrote “to be radically Christian,” but really, is there any other kind? You cannot be Christian without other people.

My stories are different, as some of you already know. Finding myself a “bride of Christ,” confronted with learning what in the world that might actually mean, I’ve discovered that I cannot be Christian without being in compassionate companionship with Tibetan Buddhists, Modern Orthodox Jews, Ultra-Orthodox Jews, perhaps now even Muslims and perceived-pagans of contemplative practice. I have been returned again and again to Christ, to see him anew and be shaped in my prayer life anew, only as these others live their tradition’s wisdom, ask me questions of mine. As paradoxical as it may sound, I cannot be Christian without these other people.

So in answer to my queries: I do believe it is impossible to be Christian alone, but with the Spirit, nothing is impossible. For those who love God. Some of us need to be pushed outside of Christian communion, to serve the common good. Others of us resist being outside, to our own detriment, captivated in our own fears. Others of us need Christians to show us the way, deepen our path. Even others of us find ourselves completely alone for a time, only to discover that we’re not remotely alone. All has simply been cleared away for Spirit to get a clean swipe at us, to shape us anew in ways we could never have expected, or hoped.

So with an impish smile, I’ll leave you alone now. Go be a friend of God, go be Christian, in your learning, in your response, in all you do.


Home is Becoming Complicated
November 21, 2011, 12:18 pm
Filed under: life of Spirit, renewal | Tags:

Home is becoming complicated, abundantly so. When you hear “home,” what comes to mind for you–images, words, smells, memories…? Take a moment, breathe all the way into your shoes and release the breath back into the world, truly listening for what you receive upon the word “home” in your ears. Say it aloud, if it helps get you out of your task-busy mind.


No place like home? All places could be home?

What? What do you hear?

Part of this “way” into which these assignments, readings, postings are all inviting you could arguably be described as living accountably at home, no matter where you are or what your path of service comes to be. What would that be like for you, to no longer know alienation, isolation, loneliness that addicts you? This is not some magic pill that erases suffering, nor is it an easy path of mind-ease and clarity…but I’m continually surprised by the number of Homes it offers. God really is around every corner, even in the painful corners in which we attempt to confine Spirit in paradoxes like theodicy or radical evil. How is that possible? I find myself asking.

Certainly not by our efforts, except for those intentional practices of letting go, of being receptive, moment to moment. Those ways in which we live into the callings we’ve been given AND practice willingness to release our assurances, again and again. Artisanal Theology talks about this as knowing with utter uncertainty before moving into unknowing and resting in God’s complete inaccessibility. I avoid the word “mystery” because i think it can be a cover-up word for anything we don’t want to know about God, but mystery does get at some of this.

Let me make some of this more concrete. I find myself far away from home. I’ve been immersed in conversations and interactions that seem remote from what I know to be lively in sacred practice–contemplative listening, practicing presence, embodied discernment of action and wisdom. My companions here–as they ARE companions of intellectual virtue and more–do not pursue these things, to my knowledge. I’ve not been home for a several days.

Except a 90-minute reunion with a contemplative kindred-spirit. Then another. Then 10 minutes with Juan of stand-up comedy and taxi-cab practice. Then dancing to a central table of Holy Eucharist with fellow Christians and all our saints above us. The Invitation so far from home has been so strongly felt, I startled to find myself a new member of a prayer community, complete with morning prayer book and compilation of “paperless musical” offerings. Far away from home, and I’ve not felt this at Home in a long time, amongst my own.

So home has deepened, broadened, and grown more complicated. Along an artisanal way of Spirit, this home is around every corner, rooted in persons faithful and listening. Those willing to wake up to the immediate moment and know God’s surprise awaits. Sometimes the surprise stings, like when we become aware of a wound or have to stretch our faith over the chasms of doubt. But always the invitation to Home, to that other side of struggle, remains. In dryness and overflow, in doubt and devotion.

Home can get complicated. Blessedly so. Thanks be to God.

A Glimpse In…from the Academic Outside
November 7, 2011, 12:18 pm
Filed under: Uncategorized

All’s been ‘quiet’ here on the Artisanal Front, as the writing energies flowed in an unexpected direction…toward the church. How about that. So, for conversation and consideration, on your leadership-development path, I offer “an open letter” to a branch of the Body of Christ. It’s length means that this represents a couple weeks’ worth of posting. (Not to worry–I noticed and will continue to honor that in your schedule.) Given the commonalities in this Body, across denomination and tradition, I suspect there might be some good food for thought for your own context, your own discipleship. May it be so.


The Rev. Lisa M. Hess, PhD