I had a friend in high school who did actual Bible drills, presenting the Bible with one hand on top and one underneath until he was given the signal to start searching. He was good at it, could find chapter and verse without breaking any of the rules by flipping pages.
My church didn’t do Bible drills, but I still prided myself on being able to find passages quickly. When I hold my Bible, a sense memory presents itself. The feel of the pages, the smell of the leather. All those years of early-morning reading and small group studies. I took it with me on trips, read it on the beach and on airplanes as if reading in the sand or the clouds might make me closer to God. I carried my Bible in my already overweighted bookbag just in case I needed it during the day to answer a question or present someone with the steps that might lead them to Jesus.
I never led anyone to Jesus, but I had all the answers just in case. In fact, we church kids never did much of anything except study the Bible, play stupid games, and eat snacks. We used our Bible knowledge to decide who was right and who was wrong and to examine song lyrics to make sure they didn’t cross any lines. When I was in college, my campus minister once remarked on how much of the Bible I knew, and my insides were warm and proud at the praise.
But we didn’t do anything the Bible talks about. We didn’t feed the hungry or clothe the needy or do anything at all for widows and orphans unless they were already in our own congregation. I could have almost found those verses just using the senses of my fingers, but I had no sense of what it felt like to actually be compelled by your faith to do anything except follow the rules set out by the church. That’s as far as my good deeds went.
My parents took me to the soup kitchen on Christmas morning and worked for the rights and inclusion of those who were marginal in our town. They drove out of their way to pick up day-old bread and take it to the food pantry. My dad toted hot dogs to the park and handed them out to homeless people. Somehow I got the impression, since we didn’t do these things at church, that they were just part of my parents’ expression of faith, not something that everyone was supposed to do. Mom and Dad are just nice people who like to help.
Have you ever attended a church that was going through growing pains? Mike and I did, for a while. There were people there who believed that the church should be extremely involved in the low-income neighborhood where it is located, and there were those of us who just wanted to go to church on Sundays and be with our friends and study the Bible. We ended up leaving that church for a variety of reasons, some better than others. One of the bad reasons was that I just didn’t want to be bothered by always talking about poor people.
That church wasn’t a good fit for us for a lot of reasons, but I wince now to think that I thought it was okay to just want to hang out with my friends and eat snacks and pray a little and help them out when they moved. I saw a very us-vs.-them paradigm, and I thought my helping was reserved for us. You could be one of us if you prayed a special prayer and changed your ways. Meanwhile, I would keep myself to myself, discussing my problems with my friends and eating cheese dip.
I struggled after Atticus was born, trying to decide if I thought it was a good idea to raise him in the Christian faith. This is, in part, because I had learned a faith that was about right belief rather than right action. I could quote you some verses about the kingdom of heaven, but I wasn’t doing anything to make it more present here on earth.
Today is Good Friday, the day when we come face-to-face with a Jesus who lost his life for what he believed. He spoke truths about justice and compassion, subverted ideas about who was in and who was out. Jesus is the reason I care about income inequality and education and universal healthcare. The message of Jesus tells me that we have to keep working until everyone in this country has equal rights, like the right to get married to the person they love. Learning about this Jesus saved my faith, but it also taught me that Jesus was not kidding when he said that the way to save your life is to lose it for his sake.
We are trying to teach Atticus about this upside-down kingdom already, about justice and oppression and privilege. I want him to know that what he does matters, and that standing against inequality is to stand on the side of the angels. I thought for a long time that being a follower of Jesus meant that I had to fight against the forces of Satan. I thought standing up for the church meant that I had to guard myself against the evil ways of the world. Caring about other people is inconvenient and messy, but it makes you part of something bigger so that what you are losing turns out not to be a loss at all. What I didn’t know when I was surrounding myself with people who were just like me is how good it feels to be caught up and swept away by the message of Jesus.