Editors' Note: This post was originally delivered as a presentation at the 2016 Why Christian conference.
I’ve always wanted to be accepted and liked. I suffer from the disease of caring too much about what other people think. It’s crippling.
In fact, I was scared s***less to come here today. Sometimes, I think I prefer the safety of my writer’s life—my cloistered office—to being out in public, exposed. When I’m writing my pages it’s easier to tune out the world, or engage with it selectively, to maintain the illusion of control. To craft the message. But sometimes, that message is false.
This is one of my author photos.
A friend came over and took it before my book came out. It’s a picture of me in my office with my daughter, Ruthie. White plank walls. Minimalist aesthetic. Good natural light. Serene.
Except that it’s not my office.
This is a picture of my actual office.
I cleared out my living room for the first shot. I moved a piece of art in from the kitchen. And then I put my desk right in the middle of the room, not against the wall, like I would in real life.
No mother of two little kids works like this, at least not this mother. I work in an unfinished attic during naptime. I sit on a stained folding chair from Costco, eat soy nuts, and worry that my pages will end up in the trash.
But the second photo doesn’t seem very Joan Didion, does it? I’ve always wanted to be a little more put together in the eyes of the world than I actually am. When I put myself out there, without the buffer, face to face, talking about what matters to me, what matters for me, more than anything else, I risk rejection.
But that’s how this faith thing works, right? Person to person, heart to heart.
But I don’t have to explain this to you. You get it. Try telling people you’re gay, or a Baptist minister? Or both? Do they understand you, in all your complexity? Or have you been boiled down, reduced to a couple of bullet points or tired clichés?
The fact is, that to love anything, to believe in anything, to make any sort of truth claim, is to risk being written off or rejected because of the messed up flock of which you are a part.
Which brings me to the second reason why I was scared to come here today. My friend Mike Baxter used to say, “The problem with telling people you’re ‘Catholic’ is they usually think you said ‘a**hole.’” And worse, you often understand why.
My 2,000-year-old tradition has participated in slavery and fought to abolish it. It has protected sexual abusers and rooted them out. It has oppressed women and canonized them. I am not perfect, and neither is my Church, but we both keep trying.
So when Nadia [Bolz-Weber] called and asked if I would come here I said “yes,” because it sounded amazing. And then I got off the phone and thought, “What am I doing?”
I am a person who badly wants to be liked and understood, but I belong to a tradition that is often disliked and misunderstood. And what’s more, I didn’t have any idea what I was going to talk about. Because, although I love my faith, and I know a lot about relics and Christian tattoos and holy water and feast days, I’m not particularly good at living my faith in the ways that matter most. I kneel at church on Sundays, not because I’m humble, but because I’m proud. And I certainly don’t wake up every morning and think, “Hell yes, I get to be a Christian today.” It’s usually, “Hell no.” I’m lucky if I wash my hair. I’m overwhelmed at the thought of my life, let alone loving my enemies or feeding anybody’s sheep.
But I did say yes, and I am a Christian, and I am here. So, why Christian?
I’m a Christian because, what’s the alternative?
I need God. And I need to stop worshiping my false god of wanting to be perfect on my own. The perfect American woman who is: ageless, self-reliant, unencumbered, and always in control. It makes me miserable, because it’s unattainable. It’s not real. I will age. I will die. I will let other people down, even when I try not to.
My faith tells me a more interesting and compelling story of surrender. Because God’s idea of perfection isn’t about never growing old, or weak, or ugly, or vulnerable. It isn’t about avoiding suffering at all costs. It looks like the whole human being fully alive.
It’s misfits and weirdos. It looks like St. Francis taking off his clothes and walking out naked into the snow for Jesus and the Church. It looks like Dorothy Day putting on a pot of coffee and welcoming anyone who walks through the door. It looks like people loving each other, imperfections and all, for a lifetime.
Christianity isn’t perfect children who never drive you crazy, or a perfect husband who never drops the ball, or a Pinterest-perfect mother who always has a clean house. God’s idea of perfection is not that. It’s all of us sinners, nonviolently loving each other, bearing wrongs patiently, and accompanying each other along the Way. It’s a set of practices, a way of life, a continual act of forgiveness.
My faith tells me that to be a saint is to know that you are a sinner, to know that you’re dependent on something greater than yourself. To know that you’re loved even when you don’t deserve it, so that, over time, it’s maybe just a little bit easier to extend that same love to somebody else.
My faith gives me the freedom to try to see myself the way God sees me.
I am the stressed out mother in sweatpants and glasses kneeling down in front of her two- and five-year-old and saying, “I’m sorry I yelled. Will you forgive me?” And hearing those words of absolution, when they say, “We forgive you, Mama” in return. Mercy is a way of life.
Because of it, my kids and I don’t have to do that thing where you trip and then break into a jog and pretend that nothing happened. We can pick each other back up. This is what the Kingdom of Heaven looks like. Perfect strength, in perfect weakness. Not the staged photo. Real life. Small moments of grace freely given and received.
Being a Christian is about learning how to see our lives through the lens of God’s story.
As an individual, in a good but fallen world, I don’t know what I’m doing half the time. On my own, I get into these negative loops, where nothing seems possible. I’m full of fears and flaws. But the story of Jesus, as well as these ancient Christian practices, helps anchor me as I muddle my way through.
And we need stories. Human beings are story-telling animals. Even though we live in a materialist, science worshiping age, we don’t experience the material world directly. Data is filtered by our sense perceptions and interpreted by our thoughts, which is to say that we make sense of it in stories. And church is the only place where I’m read stories aloud every week. Stories of saints and sinners. Stories that cling. Stories that are true.
I need to hear the story of a God who doesn’t act like a god is supposed to. Jesus, who chooses to come into the world not with a show of force, but as member of a small and humiliated tribe. Jesus, who chooses to become an unplanned pregnancy, a homeless person, a refugee, a laborer, a friend of sinners and women, a tortured and executed criminal. Everything we fear. Jesus, whose story allows us to question the assumptions and values that shape our world. God, who takes on human flesh, until we can see it as holy.
I need to be loved, and love comes with community. And part of that means sharing my story with others, and hearing theirs.
So let me tell you some of my story. I was baptized as a baby in a punchbowl in a public park in Austin, Texas. Plunged three times in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. Wrapped in a dry towel. Marked with the sign of the Cross. Anointed with oil for the journey. And then people ate burgers and drank beers. A totally ordinary every day in-breaking of the Holy Spirit.
My parents gave me a name that spoke to my human dignity. I was named after St. Anna the prophetess who briefly recognizes Jesus in the Gospel of Luke. A name that is a tiny part of God’s own name, God’s own story. A name that reminded me to keep my eyes open for Christ in unfamiliar faces. A name that means grace, that reminds me that life is a gift. A name that I will spend the rest of my life figuring out what to do with.
I have a memory of kneeling on our living room carpet as a little kid in scratchy footed pajamas, right alongside my brothers and sisters. It’s almost Christmas and we’re circled around a small table with a wreath on it. The room is dark except for one lamp, until my mother strikes a match and chants the oldest extra-scriptural hymn, “O Radiant Light O Sun Divine, of God the father’s deathless face. O image of the light sublime that fills the heavenly dwelling place.” And they went on about “Lord Jesus Christ the source of life” and recited Mary’s Magnificat where she says, “God pulls tyrants from their thrones and lifts up the lowly.” I was just a little kid, and I was transfixed by the beauty of the flames.
But it wasn’t a straight path from there to here. As I got older, I struggled with doctrine, and belief, and wanting to do things my own way. I still struggle with that. And I often longed to belong to a religion that was less ancient, more modern, less strange. When I was a teenager, I was embarrassed every time my parents made the sign of the Cross in a pizza place, convinced that people would think they were superstitious or uneducated fools.
It was complicated. I went to parties and concerts on Saturday night and then to church bleary eyed with my family early the next morning. I had a lot of freedom. I was their fourth kid.
And I was raised to be both Catholic and a free thinker. Encouraged to read widely, ask questions, express skepticism, go to all the different churches in my hometown. You name it, I checked it out. Because I was taught that it doesn’t hurt God’s feelings to be a seeker, and that if the truth is true it can handle our questions and our doubts.
But I also knew in my bones that people had made sacrifices to pass on this way of life to me. My ancestors took the Beatitudes to heart because they had to. Blessed are you when you’re not too attached to what other people think about you. Both my husband’s grandmother and my great-grandfather had crosses burned in their front yards for being Catholic immigrants in Texas. Un-American. Papists. Strangers in a strange land.
I stayed, in the end, because I believed it was true, but also because I got something out of it. I got to be loved, as I am, not as someone else the world thought I should be. When my feet were washed on Holy Thursday my heart felt light.
And I have seen, in our imperfect religion, moments of real grace. My mother-in-law, Ceci, is a working-class homemaker in her 70s who grew up in a small town in Texas in the 1950s and married at the age of eighteen. She used to make dinner for the Catholic Worker community in South Bend, Indiana. The homeless guys at the house preferred Oreos to homemade pie, but she came faithfully anyway, because she loved Jesus and trusted in his Word. One day, I saw her share a piece of pie with a prostitute and drug addict in her 20s. And after eating side by side at table, they sat every week on the couch coloring together in this woman’s coloring book.
There is evil in the world. There is the absence of good. We have to name it. But the evil isn’t what the prostitute has done, it’s what we’ve done to her. And that day I watched as my mother-in-law broke the cycle of evil, by seeing the other, not as a sum total of her acts, or the worst moments in her life, but as who she is, a child of God, and sister in Christ.
My mother-in-law wasn’t born this way. She tells me she learned it in church: “This is what Jesus did and we’re supposed to do the same,” she says. This is why I am a Christian. I need to be loved and forgiven and schooled, so I can love others as they are, and learn to accept it when others love me. Not for something I’ve achieved, but because “the Word flashes out in every creature.”
I have seen the Christian story born out in radical communities that lived it. I had a priest who broke the law to bring life-saving medicine to Iraq under U.S. sanctions. And a pastor who was an easy mark and gave money and assistance to all the homeless folks who hung around our downtown church, including a man named Louie who, despite his significant belly, liked to wear neon orange bicycle shorts, headphones, and a crop-top to Mass.
The liturgy and the Scriptures give me an idea of what life could be like, if we wanted it.
I go to church with people from different races, classes, political parties, sexual orientations, ages, and parts of town. People I would never otherwise cross paths with exchange the Sign of Peace with me at church. Not because we’re always good at loving one another, but because Jesus told us to. There is no other place in my life where a CEO and a homeless man drink from a common cup.
And I couldn’t have imagined all this on my own. I didn’t reason in a vacuum to the conclusion that we should love our enemies or turn the other cheek. It was my spiritual inheritance. Passed down in the stories of my faith and my people. I know it, insofar as I know it at all, because “the Word was made flesh and dwelt among us.”
Of course, I have also seen the Christian story betrayed by communities that believed in it. I have betrayed it myself. Sometimes the Church isn’t a traveler’s inn where the wounded are healed. It’s the Cross on which Christ was crucified. Churches will disappoint you.
My friend Cassie was kicked out of Mass last year by a priest. Cassie has two young kids in a one-bedroom apartment in Washington, D.C., and works as a hospice nurse. And sometimes she braves the cold, and the trains, and the snow gear, and the three-story walk up, to take her toddler and preschooler with her to daily Mass.
She tells them, “This is God’s house. We’re always welcome here.” And one morning her kids were squirming and making noise, as kids do, when an usher at the Basilica of the Immaculate Conception told her that she needed to take them and leave because they were “distracting father.”
And she walked down the aisle of God’s house in tears. And later called me crying. Christianity is dying for young people, and this young woman, with even younger children, was asked to go. So she left that church, but didn’t leave the Church. Because one unwelcoming priest or parishioner, or hundreds of them, don’t get to make the Church a museum, or define God or religion for us all.
And I choose this example deliberately, because it is so small. It is so mundane. In my lifetime the Church has done much worse, but sometimes it’s the petty, daily bulls*** that makes you want to throw up your hands and go.
Going to church is hard. There will sometimes be a jerk there. Sometimes I’m the jerk there. Going to church is hard, because it is in part, an exercise in self-accusation. And it doesn’t always feel good to do an inventory of your sins, even if it’s done in the light of God’s infinite love. We pray the Kyrie, that ancient prayer at every liturgy, “Kyrie, eleison. Christe, eleison. Kyrie, eleison.” “Lord, have mercy. Christ, have mercy. Lord, have mercy.”
But I can’t leave, because I’m in awe at being something rather than nothing, at being sustained by a reality that I could not have created for myself. I can’t go, because a purely materialistic account of the universe doesn’t explain consciousness or freedom or joy, let alone human dignity or holiness or resurrection. It doesn’t get at what it feels like to be alive.
And I can’t leave, because I want to tell my kids the story, and pray Vespers with them in the dark. My daughter Ruthie was born on the feast of St. Augustine. And I hope that his story will disrupt the too-small story that the world tells her about being a perfect girl. Because Augustine’s life was wild and circuitous, and messy, and God used it, for good.
And I can’t leave, because I need a place to go and express gratitude for my life. To bow down before a mystery and say “thank you.”
All photos courtesy of the author.