Yesterday was Palm Sunday. Embry and I attended All Souls Episcopal Church where we have been loyal members since the mid 80s. The Palm Sunday service is my favorite—especially when the Passion Narrative is sung, which it was–and beautifully done–yesterday. What was also significant, however, were the words of our new rector, encouraging us to lay off politics during Holy Week, and to try to cut down on watching, listening to or reading the news. Just ease off and go slow and discern the meaning of Holy Week. Wise counsel.
So in this blog you are not getting my latest Trump outrage. You are getting religion.
Fear not, however. I will tread easy.
Talking about religion and faith has never been my strong suit. I recall the incident that occurred a number of years ago when Embry and I were church shopping in the 1970s, not long after we moved to DC. One chilly spring morning we ended up at what had been described to us as a progressive Episcopal church and found ourselves thrust into discussion groups dealing with the passage, “Man can’t live by bread alone but only by the very word of God.” Embry and I were assigned to different groups. When my turn came to speak, my heart was beating fast. I can’t recall my exact words, but a well-dressed man in his forties interrupted me and exclaimed in what I perceived to be a hostile tone, “Well, exactly what do you believe anyway?”
I was taken aback. What did I believe? I paused for a moment and tried to organize my thinking. Ok, he asked for it. This was my big chance. Flashing through my mind were all the classes in theology and the Bible that I had taken at Union Seminary, taught by the most renowned scholars in Christendom. I thought of the deep discussions with Union classmates and my faith journey and decided to go deep, to reach down into my inner soul, and to speak with profound feeling and honesty. In short, I let it all hang out. As my testimony unfolded, I surprised myself as to how genuine and authentic I must be sounding and how everything that I had studied and everything I believed miraculously seemed to fall into place. I completed my testimony with a satisfaction that actually surprised me. There. I had said it.
“Is that it,” asked the well-dressed man. “Is that what you believe?”
I nodded with a smug smile.
“Well,” he said, “If that is what you believe, why don’t you just join the Democratic Party?”
Everyone in the group was staring at me with astonished expressions. An elderly lady in the group turned to her neighbor and commented in a stage whisper, “He is just the kind of person we have been trying to drum out of this church.”
As you might conclude, despite its reputation as being progressive, this church was not a good fit for us. (I learned later that they were in a transition period with a big fight going on between the “progressives” and those who wanted to turn back the clock.)
You might also ask the question, why do you go to church anyway? What is it that keeps you attending when you could be sailing or walking in the woods? While I admit that sometimes I ask myself the same question—and there are surely a lot of good, social reasons such as being part of a loving, diverse community—there are religious–or spiritual– reasons as well.
It basically boils down to answering another question: what are the alternatives. Not the alternatives with regard to how I spend my time but the alternatives as to making any sense out of the universe and our place in it. The major leap of faith is to believe that there is actually meaning and purpose to our lives on this planet, not simply random chance. Once you make this leap, I believe that there are many paths you can take on a spiritual journey. All are not the same, and some, I believe, are decidedly better than others. Christianity is one path. It is the path I was born into and part of my growing up and part of our Western culture. It is a path rooted in love and acceptance and offers a road map for ethical behavior and hope that our actions–and our lives– are not for naught. On really good days it offers a connectedness with something both within and beyond that tells us the universe is good and that our lives are important, that we are loved. This something is really hard to describe. The word we usually use for it is “God.”
Holy Week is the most important week in the life of the Christian Church because it honors the human who lived over two thousand years ago in what is now Israel and whom his followers believed embodied the spirit we call God. After he died, his followers believed he continued to live. Others who did not even know Jesus of Nazareth also believed this to be true and that his spirit could be experienced by ordinary people. The experience of his early followers led them to believe that he was both human and divine—that he was God.
The rest is history. There are more than two billion people on the planet Earth who call themselves Christians (or at least are characterized as such)—more than any other religion. This is the week that they (we) will “relive” the last week of his life through liturgy and worship telling the Christian story: the glorious entry of Jesus of Nazareth into Jerusalem (Palm Sunday), the “last supper” with his disciples (Maundy Thursday), his betrayal and crucifixion (Good Friday), and finally his resurrection on Easter Day. While I still admit there are as many questions as answers and while the history of the Christian Church has had its share of dark days, the Christian faith has nourished and changed the lives of billions of ordinary people, providing hope and a beacon for what is good and right on the planet Earth. I am one of those ordinary people.
This is not exactly what I said on the chilly morning way back when in that unwelcoming Episcopal Church, but it is pretty close.
So add to my “thanksgivings” in my last post, “Holy Week, 2017.” And by the way, if you are thinking about posting a comment, I am already a Democrat. I joined the Democratic Party the week after my testimony in the mid 70s.