Monday, May 28, 2007

Sara Miles: A Radical Conversion

I am currently reading Take This Bread by Sara Miles. Here's Sara's description of the book, from the Prologue:
...Mine is a personal story of an unexpected and terribly inconvenient Christian conversion, told by a very unlikely convert: a blue-state, secular intellectual; a lesbian, a left-wing journalist with a habit of skepticism. I'm not the person my reporter colleagues ever expected to see exchanging blessings with street-corner evangelists. I'm hardly the person George Bush had in mind to be running a “faith-based charity.” My own family never imagined that I'd wind up preaching the Word of God and serving communion to a hymn-singing flock.

But as well as an intimate memoir of personal conversion, mine is a political story. At a moment when right-wing American Christianity is ascendant, when religion worldwide is rife with fundamentalism and exclusionary ideological crusades, I stumbled into a radically inclusive faith centered on sacraments and action. What I found wasn't about angels, or going to church, or trying to be “good” in a pious, idealized way. It wasn't about arguing a doctrine--the Virgin birth, predestination, the sinfulness of homosexuality and divorce––or pledging blind allegiance to a denomination. I was, as the prophet said, hungering and thirsting for righteousness. I found it at the eternal and material core of Christianity: body, blood, bread, wine poured out freely, shared by all. I discovered a religion rooted in the most ordinary yet subversive practice: a dinner table where everyone is welcome, where the poor, the despised and the outcasts are honored.

And so I became a Christian, claiming a faith that many of my fellow believers want to exclude me from; following a God my unbelieving friends see as archaic superstition. At a time when Christianity in America is popularly represented by ecstatic teen crusaders in suburban megachurches, slick preachers proclaiming the “gospel” of prosperity, and shrewd political organizers who rail against evolution, gay marriage and stem-cell research, it's crucial to understand what faith actually means in the lives of people very different from one another. Why would any thinking person become a Christian? How can anyone reconcile the hateful politics of much contemporary Christianity with Jesus' imperative to love? What are the deepest ideas of this contested religion, and what do they mean in real life?

In this book I look at the Gospel that moved me, the bread that changed me and the work that saved me, to begin a spiritual and an actual communion across the divides...
I'm only half-way through this book, but have already been so deeply touched that it was necessary to put it down for awhile. There is so much that is worth commenting on already that I know I cannot contain it all in one post. From the first half alone, I can already identify three separate topics that call for further reflection; conversion, liturgy and service. In this first post I'll be focusing on conversion.

After many years as a cook and then a journalist covering wars and revolutions in Central America, Sara found herself walking past a church in San Francisco. Here is what happened next:
...Early one winter morning, when Katie was sleeping at her father's house, I walked into St. Gregory of Nyssa Episcopal Church in San Francisco. I had no earthly reason to be there. I'd never heard a Gospel reading, never said the Lord's Prayer. I was certainly not interested in becoming a Christian -- or, as I thought of it rather less politely, a religious nut. But on other long walks I'd passed the beautiful wooden building, with its shingled steeples and plain windows, and this time I went in, on an impulse, with no more than a reporter's habitual curiosity.

The rotunda was flooded with slanted morning light. A table in the center of the open, empty space was ringed high above by a huge neo-Byzantine mural of unlikely saint figures with gold halos, dancing; outside, in the back, water trickled from a huge slab of rock set against the hillside. Past the rotunda, and a forest of standing silver crosses, there was a spare, spacious area without pews, where about twenty people were sitting...

...I walked in, took a chair and tried not to catch anyone's eye. There were windows looking out on a hillside covered in geraniums, and I could hear birds squabbling outside. Then a man and a woman in long tie-dyed robes stood and began chanting in harmony. There was no organ, no choir, no pulpit: just the unadorned voices of the people, and long silences framed by the ringing of deep Tibetan bowls. I sang too. It crossed my mind that this was ridiculous.

We sat down and stood up, sang and sat down, waited and listened and stood up and sang, and it was all pretty peaceful and sort of interesting. "Jesus invites everyone to his table," the woman announced, and we started moving up in a stately dance to the table in the rotunda. It had some dishes on it, and a pottery goblet.

And then we gathered around that table. And there was more singing and standing, and someone was putting a piece of fresh, crumbly bread in my hands, saying, "the body of Christ," and handing me the goblet of sweet wine saying "the blood of Christ," and then something outrageous and terrifying happened. Jesus happened to me.

I still can't explain my first communion. It made no sense. I was in tears and physically unbalanced: I felt as if I had just stepped off a curb, or been knocked over, painlessly, from behind. The disconnect between what I thought was happening – I was eating a piece of bread; what I heard someone else say was happening - the piece of bread was the "body" of "Christ," a patently untrue, or at best metaphorical statement; and what I knew was happening -- God, named "Christ" or "Jesus," was real, and in my mouth – utterly short-circuited my ability to do anything but cry...
(Take This Bread, pp. 57-59)
If you read the beginning of Sara's story, this "Aha!" moment can almost be anticipated. It may seem unusual for the act of receiving communion to initiate a conversion of heart, but, if you think about it, isn't that exactly what the Eucharist is intended to do?

I think one big factor in this moment of conversion for Sara was the setting; St. Gregory of Nyssa in San Francisco. It was the right place at the right time. We'll talk about that in another post.

Some of us may not recall a particularly ecstatic moment of conversion. Others may have such experiences regularly, even daily. I think that difference has more to do with our personalities than anything else. What I hope we can all acknowledge is that God is madly, head over heals in love with each and every one of us, and is constantly wooing us into being. Sometimes, when the veil is thrown back, and we glimpse the depth of this love, "something outrageous and terrifying" happens...Jesus happens.

Those of you who, like me, were raised with a Baptist/Pentecostal understanding of conversion might need to be reminded of two more things about conversion that we may not have learned in our formative years; first, that "conversion" is not simply about my personal relationship with God, and second, that it is not a one time experience.

Regarding the first, some time after that winter morning, Sara was asked to serve the Sacrament to others. Here is how she described that experience:
...What happened once I started distributing communion was the truly disturbing, dreadful realization about Christianity: You can't be a Christian by yourself...

...Just like the strangers who'd fed me in El Salvador or South Africa, I was going to have to see and understand the hunger of other, different men and women, and make a gesture of welcome, and eat with them. And just as I hadn't "deserved" any of what was given to me - the fish, the biscuits, the tea so abundantly poured out back in those years - I didn't deserve communion myself now. I wasn't getting it because I was good. I wasn't getting it because I was special. I certainly didn't get to pick who else was good enough, holy enough, deserving enough to receive it. It wasn't a private meal. The bread on that Table had to be shared with everyone in order for me to really taste it.

And sharing it meant I was going to be touching Christ's body at St. Gregory's, through Donald and Rick and the angry older deacon with the clenched jaw. Looking into Christ's eyes outside of church, through the cheery atheist yuppie with the sports car and the veiled Muslim clerk at Walgreens. Listening to Christ's voice in other churches, through the middle-aged woman with the annoying nasal whine, and the self-righteous homophobic radio evangelist, and the conservative African bishop. I was not going to get to sit by myself and think loftily about how much Jesus loved me in particular. I was not going to get to have dinner, eternally, with people just like me. I was going to get communion, whether I wanted it or not, with people I didn't necessarily like. People I didn't choose. People such as my parents or the strangers who fed me: the people God chose for me.

I ate the bread...
(Take This Bread, pp. 96-97)
The summary of the law is love God and love your neighbor. Sharing Holy Communion is never a form of personal piety. It forces us to stretch our understanding of the household of God to embrace all people, including those who we may feel like strangling at the moment.

And finally, Sara makes the important point that conversion is not a one-time experience:
...Conversion isn't, after all, a moment. It's a process, and it keeps happening, with cycles of acceptance and resistance, epiphany and doubt. As I struggled with bread and wine and belief over the following year at St. Gregory's, it stayed hard. I began to understand why so many people chose to be "born again" and follow strict rules that would tell them what to do, once and for all. It was tempting to rely on a formula-"accepting Jesus Christ as your personal Lord and savior," for example-that became itself a form of idolatry and kept you from experiencing God in your flesh, in the complicated flesh of others. It was tempting to proclaim yourself "saved" and go back to sleep.

The faith I was finding was jagged and more difficult. It wasn't about abstract theological debates: Does God exist? Are sin and salvation predestined? Or even about political/ideological ones: Is capital punishment a sin? Is there a scriptural foundation for accepting homosexuality?

It was about action. Taste and see, the Bible said, and I did. I was tasting a connection between communion and food-between my burgeoning religion and my real life. My first questioning year at church ended with a question whose urgency would propel me into work I'd never imagined. Now that you've taken the bread, what are you going to do?
<Take This Bread, p. 97)
I don't know about you, but I'm converted to becoming a follower of Jesus Christ every morning. Usually after my first cup of coffee.

Conversion is an ongoing process. It is from that perspective that we can remain open to the Spirit of the living God breathing new life into us each day, refreshing us and empowering us to work with God in the act of creation, in the work of making all things new.

Next time we'll talk about liturgy, the "work of the people," specifically as it is explored by Sara Miles at St. Gregory of Nyssa in San Francisco.

J.

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