And let us take thought of how to spur one another
on to love and good works, not abandoning our own meetings,
as some are in the habit of doing, but encouraging each other,
and even more so because you see the day drawing near.
– Hebrews 10:24-25
I didn’t know until I saw the headline. “Man who lost family in Gatlinburg fire pens open letter forgiving arson suspects.” My heart sank. They were dead. I was hoping Michael Reed would find his wife and daughters alive, but as the days went on, I knew that was more and more unlikely.
I read the article, which quoted the letter that Michael Reed had written to the two teenage suspects. “We will pray for you. Every day. We will pray for your parents and your family members. Every day. We will pray for your peace. We will show you grace. Why? Because that’s what Jesus would do.”
That’s what Jesus would do.
I was angry. I was angry with the Christian idea of forgiveness. Why should this man have to forgive? His wife and his daughters were dead. Dead. Three lives lost. I could feel the anger boiling up inside of me, and I opened my mouth and let it spill out.
Nick listened, and then he told me I was wrong. What kind of world did I want to live in? Did I want to live in a world of human vengeance and vigilante justice? This was exactly why the concept of Jesus was good. Humans fail again and again at keeping themselves in line. Maybe having a supernatural power to help us forgive each other and not engage in revenge killings wasn’t such a bad thing.
Maybe. I could see how in this case – in THIS case – forgiveness might make sense. The teenagers didn’t intend to kill anyone. They were hiking and playing with matches. They were stupid, but were they murderers? I didn’t think so. It was an accident.
But, what about in other cases? I thought of a terribly made movie from 20 years ago, Eye for an Eye with Sally Field and Kiefer Sutherland. Field’s character killed the man who raped and murdered her daughter. Why should a mother have to forgive her daughter’s rapist and murderer? She shouldn’t! When I saw the movie, I was glad he was dead. Justice and not forgiveness!
“Listen to yourself,” Nick said. “You cannot have people exacting their own justice.”
“Rationally, sure, it doesn’t make sense. I don’t want a world like that. But, I know if that happened to Hannah, then I would want revenge. I wouldn’t want to forgive her murderer. I know that’s not the right thing, but knowing it might not be enough if it really happened.”
“Then, you’re the one with the problem,” he answered.
“I know. Maybe I need Jesus,” I said.
“Maybe you do.”
I read Michael Reed’s words.
“As humans, it is sometimes hard to show grace. We hold grudges. We stay angry. We point the finger and feel we have to lay the blame somewhere. It’s human nature and completely understandable. But I did not raise my children to live with hate. I did not teach my girls or my son to point the finger at others. John 8:7 says, ‘Let he who has not sinned cast the first stone.'”
I felt deficient. Here was a man whose wife and daughters burned to death, but he could forgive. He held no hate in his heart, and if the hate crept in, he had God to help him.
The ability to forgive. Maybe that’s what I’d been searching for. It wasn’t just the ability to forgive others. I’d accepted that forgiving myself was impossible.
“Let he who has not sinned cast the first stone.”
“Will you go to church with me?” I asked.
Q: Why can’t atheists solve exponential equations?
A: Because they don’t believe in higher powers.
Where do atheists go to church? I knew where we’d go. We’d go to Haywood Street Congregation because I couldn’t picture myself in any other church. I knew that Haywood Street was a community of people who were trying to impact the world in some of the same ways I was. Maybe I didn’t believe in the divinity of Jesus, but I believed in other ideas that Jesus taught. And, I knew that Haywood Street was living that message. If I was going to church, it would have to be a community where I felt I belonged.
So, we went to church on Sunday night.
I came home. I read the Gospel of John. I ordered John Shelby Spong’s new book. I listened to a few random sermons.
On Wednesday morning, we went to Homeless Persons’ Memorial Day. We ate breakfast at First Presbyterian Church and then went on a silent walk to Pack Square where the service was held. The pastor from Haywood Street was there. Several homeless men and women I knew from the day center were there. The community stood in the cold and listened as the names of those who died on the streets were read. The community held cardboard signs and asked for access to showers, more jobs, and more affordable housing. The community read in unison and asked to be treated with dignity.
I went to work. Campus was silent. No students, no faculty, a handful of staff. The offices around me were dark. By noon, I was antsy. I texted Nick. “I think I might leave for lunch and go to church at 12:30.”
“Go,” he said.
I sat next to a mother and two teenagers who were obviously visiting for the holidays. They’d accompanied another family who appeared to be regular members. I sang Christmas hymns and was grateful that I knew the chorus to all of them. When it was time for the congregation to ask for prayers, the woman in the pew in front of me raised her hand. She asked for prayers for her friends sitting next to me because they had just lost their husband and father. The widow sobbed. The community raised their homemade, plastic shakers and rattled them in prayer.
I stood in line to leave. As the elderly woman in front of me shook the pastor’s hand, she said, “I had no idea some of those hymns had so many verses.”
Neither did I.
I read more of John. I started watching a documentary on the first Christians. I figured out what United Methodists believed. I ordered five scholarly books on the New Testament.
The kids went to church with me on Sunday night for Christmas. “But you don’t believe in God,” Ari said. “Why do we have to go?”
“Because I want to go, and you need to learn how to do things you don’t want to do without complaining. It’s Christmas Day and a lot of the people at this church don’t have homes, and they don’t have anywhere else to go and feel that they belong. So, we can go today and be part of the community where they do belong.”
The pastor stood at the front of the church and explained that United Methodists don’t re-baptize because they believe God gets it right the first time. But, he said, they were going to affirm the baptism of a member who had been sober for four years. The community rose and laid hands on their friend.
Ari struggled to stay awake. He shifted in the pew and said it hurt his butt. During a random pause in the service, he farted and it loudly reverberated down our row. I decided that my children did not need to know Jesus if it meant they had to come to church with me again.
We read the story of Jesus’ birth. The pastor asked what message we could find in the verses from Luke. The congregation shared their thoughts. Jesus was just another number to Caesar Augustus. The word of God was born in a wordless baby. Jesus was like us.
“I want a God who walks among us,” the pastor said.
We got in the car, and Hannah said that it wasn’t exactly like going to synagogue. “No, it’s not,” I said. “Did you understand what happened when they called that man to the front and reaffirmed his baptism?”
“No, what’s a baptism?”
“Well, it’s different based on the denomination, but it’s a way of saying you are Christian. Some Christians baptize infants and some believe you need to be old enough to choose to be baptized. Some sprinkle water on you and some dunk you under water. The United Methodists perform infant baptisms. The pastor was explaining that they wouldn’t actually re-baptize that man because he’d already been baptized, maybe as an infant or maybe later in life. But, he’s someone who has been in and out of prison and who struggled with addiction, and now that has had been sober for a while, he wanted to affirm his belief in Jesus. That’s why they called him up and had everyone put their hands on him. So, if I decided I wanted to believe in Jesus, they wouldn’t re-baptize me because I was baptized as an infant, and they believe God got it right the first time.”
“You were baptized?”
“Yes. In the Catholic church. Babcia’s family is Catholic.”
“But, Babcia is Jewish!”
“Sometimes, people change their minds about religion.”
I flipped through the copy of the King James Bible on my desk. The words of Christ were in red. When I was in graduate school for Jewish Studies, one of my professors said that every Jew should read the Gospels. “The Gospels are some of the greatest Jewish literature ever.” I never got around to reading them because I was too busy reading all of the Jewish literature that was required to pass my classes.
Somewhere in the house I had a copy of the Jefferson Bible. Thomas Jefferson created his own Bible, eliminating references to miracles and cutting and pasting a version using only the words of Jesus, verse by verse. Jefferson said of his Bible, “There will be found remaining the most sublime and benevolent code of morals which has ever been offered to man.”
Was that what I wanted? Joseph Priestly and Thomas Jefferson’s wholly human Jesus and his moral teachings? A study of Scripture through the lens of reason? Rational religion?
But, I could find that without church.
I told a friend that I was trying to find my place and that I knew it would sound odd to most atheists, but I believed I’d been called to something meaningful that was bigger than me. She said the feeling I was experiencing was God. I’ve always hesitated to use the term “called” because it never sounded quite right. Called by whom? By what? Yet, when I walked into Haywood Street I felt that everyone else had been called there also. Their community of Holy Chaos felt like a community of purpose.
This is a not a ministry where “the haves” help “the have nots”. We are a ministry that acknowledges each of us as privileged and each of us as being in need. While some come with hunger from the body others come with a hunger in their souls.
As we stumble to walk in the footsteps of Jesus, we find his life and his teachings call us to accompany one another. Most of Jesus’ ministry was gathering with folks at table, sharing bread and story. Haywood Street strives to follow this model.
Called to accompany one another. Called to a community. Perhaps, I have found my place.
Maybe God got it right the first time after all.