A Most Unusual Christ
This week one of my distinguished colleagues, Village Voice Executive Editor Laura Conaway, will be a guest writer in Bible Girl. I'll respond to her column next week. --Julie Lyons
Laura Conaway: Here's the baseball card on me: Born-again Christian, a woman married to a woman, member of a liberal liturgical community in New York City. That particular journey, from a born-again congregation to a less rigid church, is hardly particular to me. Some day, when I get brave enough or God gives me no choice, I'll tell that long story. And maybe it'll mean something to someone other than me.
For now, I want to tell you a different story, about a church in the rain on Palm Sunday night, when I, an outsider, saw as close a representation of Christ as I may in this lifetime be privileged to see.
I'd spent years nibbling at the edge of the Anglican Communion, dropping in for early morning and evening services at Episcopal churches from Mississippi to California. You might call me a reconstructed fundamentalist--my wife, who, thank God, is the smart one at home--says I can be no such thing. Still, I flinch every Sunday at that part where we profess belief in one baptism for the forgiveness of sins. Me, I traveled the Romans Road to God, and though I no longer believe it's the only route to the divine, I must confess to remaining in its tracks. We also in my church pray most Sundays for those whom the church has injured or offended--in the silence of my heart, I like to include my many friends of other faiths and of no faiths in whom shines so persistently the glory of God.
All of this puts me a far piece from the Christian I was raised to be.
Growing up Southern Baptist in Mississippi, as I did, you can easily memorize half the New Testament and yet learn little of the church calendar. The idea of everybody trying to do the same thing at the same time seems to us almost a sin against the Holy Spirit. That night, nearly a decade ago, when I sprinted alone through the spring torrent and pushed open the heavy chapel door, I was surprised to learn it was Palm Sunday. There, under the high vaulted ceiling, a dozen or Christians prepared to read the Passion, the great drama of Christ's crucifixion.
As it happened, I had entered a a phase of my faith in which the humanity of Jesus became more important to me than the divinity of Christ. There's a certain dominance that comes with being God in human form--game over, you might say--and that version of the savior had stopped helping me find my way once the cocksureness of youth wore off. Just a little over 30, I had been through a lot, more than I'd have volunteered for at the outset. I needed the Jesus who wondered what people thought of him, who got tired and needed to wander away, who changed his mind, who grew in wisdom and in stature, who sweated blood in the garden and asked what in God's name was going on.
And boy, was I fixing to get it. For this wasn't the usual crowd gathered there in St. Luke's chapel, part of the cathedral in Portland, Maine. A few minutes in, I could see that a couple of people had no discernible gender. The women, several of them, were butcher than I was, the men as fey as La Cage aux Folles. This wasn't the service I'd meant to attend; it wasn't even Episcopalian, not our LGBT Integrity group. This was Dignity, the rainbow Catholics, and they were serious about it.
The worshipers took their turns at the introductory prayers and Scriptures, among them the 22nd Psalm. You should know that my wife, bless her cradle-Episcopalian heart, has a near fetish for that one, the one Christians see as a preview of Jesus' death on the cross. She's a nontheist to make Bishop Spong proud, and for her the son of God is all about the son of man. She sees God in every person; for her, this is a religious discipline as well as a humanitarian fact. When the Psalmist cries out, "My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?" she hears in his words the desperation of all humankind. The Bibles in our house open neatly to those verses. Some couples have a song; we have a Psalm.
The job of reading that night fell to a wisp of a man, a guy you just knew had been called fag since kindergarten.
Now I have listened to this Psalm delivered by priests in robes and bankers in suits, by my wife, by choirs and paid soloists. But I had never, ever, heard someone live it.
This man was no fine figure--except for his gayness, you wouldn't have noticed him even in a small group. I remember that he seemed a few years older than I, perhaps in his early forties, and that he was wearing the sort of plain buttoned shirt so common among the working class of New England, that his hair was dark and unremarkable, that he looked like all the other descendants of Quebecois or Italians or Irish who brought their faith with them to this cold place. He was no fine reader, either. He lisped and stumbled and continued on, his voice not always audible in the din of that rain. He was a faggot, queer, condemned by words in the very Bible he now dared read to us, a man told by leaders of that same body of Christ that the proof of his faith would be a change in who he was--from gay to straight, or to celibate, or to something more like them.
"As for me, I am a worm and no man, scorned by men, and despised by the people," he read from the lectionary. "All who see me mock me to scorn, they make mouths at me, they wag their heads."
Surely he had lived through the suffering and deaths of friends from AIDS. Ask any gay man over 40--they've all survived a plague largely kept apart from the rest of this country.
"I am poured out like water, and all my bones are out of joint," he continued. "My strength is dried up like a potsherd, and my tongue cleaves to the roof of my mouth. Thou dost lay me in the dust of the earth."
Just by reading those words, in that place, he witnessed to me with the power my youth group only supposed we had back when we dressed in Izods and handed out pamphlets at the mall. You might think I felt his faith so deeply because I am queer, and you might be right. But really, I think it was because he showed me the courage of Christ, the courageous and self-sacrificing hospitality of a savior who cherished the outcast despite the purity codes of his day, whose love made it possible for people like this man to live as full children of God, as full human beings. That man took the gospel of Christ straight to the heart of the church, without regard for that heart's historic regard of him. He was looking for God, and God found him. So often, we think in terms of the church's mission to be embracing of the outcast, but his humbling witness was to be embracing and forgiving of us.
And there was my Christ, son of God, son of man. Having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them till the end. --Laura Conaway
Bible Girl readers, we turn over the floor to you. If you'd like a link sent to you for next week's column responding to Ms. Conaway, drop me a line.