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.


4 Comments so far
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First, thank you for the reference to the book, Stages of Faith, I intend to get that asap. I can not be a Christian alone. I understand that with respect to community, fellowship and tradition. I don’t think you can understand tradition apart from community or live out your faith without fellowship.

To live a life of relationship to God and Christ is to live in communion with others, even if that communion involves those of different beliefs. It appears to me that the challenges of personal faith practice, theological beliefs and denominational norms are part of what helps us live out Christianity.

In my opinion the internal promptings of Spirit and the external pressures of community help to form us at different times and in different ways, into who we profess to be. Sometimes the community consists of those that are like-minded, and sometimes we find ourselves in a community of ‘others’, both are beneficial. This continual molding and shaping allows us to become.

That being said, I am presently at a point where I question my need to be so present. Present in worship service, present in fellowship, even present in meetings. There are times when I would rather be alone than exhorting the Word, or explaining a practice or defending a position.

I really appreciate your reflections on what it means to not be alone even when there are no people around. I believe that nature does matter, the clouds and wind, a cool stillness; I also believe that being alone with memories matter, if that really counts for being alone. Others can be present in remembered conversations or other interactions without actually being there. Even when people are not around, a certain amount of ‘residue’ remains.

I am hoping that time spent alone will help restore balance and bring into focus the myriad that is Communion, Spirit, fellowship, memories, tasks, challenges and ‘residue’. I believe that I can not be a Christian alone; and that I can not become a Christian if I am never alone.

Comment by Phyllis Lemon

I like this post a lot. It is so true that one needs others to build them up. I know I feel stronger after every Sunday. I love going to church; being around other people It does make me a stronger person when I am surrounded by other people. They don’t have to necessarily believe the same way. I think, regardless of whether they are Christians, when I am surrounded by other people it does build me up. I love hearing other people’s stories. The beauty of life is the fact that we are never alone. Christ is always with us and He does try to surround us with people who love us.

Comment by Michelle Wilkey

This will preach! 🙂
I found myself fully embracing this blog. In trying to be a better Christian, it is important to listen to what others have to say. It is important to be in community with those who have different beliefs-and to try and understand where they are in their faith journey. I feel that with all of my heart.

Something you said really resonated with me. Your wilderness years…I have found myself becoming a Christian, the type of Christian that my parents do not always embrace. They love me because I am their daughter-but my faith journey has taken me to a different place-one they do not always agree with. I do believe that they see me as a Christian, but they wonder sometimes what Bible I am reading. I think it is necessary to have some contemplative time with God-some alone time. I tend to do this after my classes…I find myself biting my tongue during class and trying to really listen to what others are saying. I used to jump in too quickly. I wanted people to hear my thoughts, but began realizing that I was not really listening when I did that.

Loving my neighbor means being fully present and listening to how they are growing and learning, whether it means listening to a Buddhist friend, Muslim friend, Jewish friend, etc. These people, all of my friends can and do help me become a better Christian. I really appreciate hearing [in this blog] how you have come to know and experience your faith walk, Dr. Hess.

I learned that it was important for me to be true to myself- to the places that God was taking me on this faith journey. I have begun to see that God should not be in this little box. While it benefits me a great deal to be with other Christians, I also find that it is imperative (to my spiritual growth) to be with others who think and believe differently. It is OK to be in these places that stretch us and make us feel a bit uncomfortable. It is in such places that I began to feel the presence of God the most. I was learning how to get out of the way and let God in- in a way that I had not in the past.

Comment by Michelle McDonald

It is important for Christians to embrace everyone , regardless of whether they are Buddhists or any other religion . I would find it hard to be Christian alone . If I were Christian alone , then what would my testimony be . That my beliefs are the only important ones . I would rather embrace others and respect them for who they are than to avoid them because they dont see things the way that I do .

Comment by Thomas Miles

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