A few months ago, I wrote this: “As I stand on the verge of a huge life chance, I wonder what my life will become. Packing up my most valued possessions has made me think a whole lot about leaving my past behind and taking the next step toward my future, into ministry; the dream I’ve had for many years now has the great potential to come true, but at the same time, nothing scares me more than the possibility that I will face some rejection from people who have never met me along the way. I envision the days when I will be without my safe community of friends who have know me, and who know the small things about me, like the fact that I prefer Pepsi to Coke, and Dunkin’ to Starbucks. But in every book, there is a beginning and an end, a start and a finish. And thus, with this novel that is Smith, I am afraid that I am closer to the end than the beginning. But this most certainly does not indicate an end to the fun and love I have experienced during my short stay in Northampton, Massachusetts, where everything goes, and you can be whoever and whatever you want to be. Instead, I hope that going to seminary next year will be the beginning of a new chapter, rather than a new book – the continuation of the same, amazing story, rather than the beginning of an entirely new one.”
But now that my life has been decided and settled, and everything that was uncertain has fallen into place, I think back and wonder what I bought into – what things I said just to say them, or better yet, what I believed just to believe what others say they believe. Faith is supposed to be the belief in things unseen, and even of things unprovable and unbelievable. Without any uncertainty, I have faith, but for the longest time – most of my college days in fact – I believed what my classmates believed just to feel like I was a part of their community, not my own. Leaving Smith, I feel the strongest conviction to separate what I believe from what I can’t. But I’m not going to waste time doing that in this post – I’ve already done that in the past. But after attending meetings with just Christians, I see the excitement over bringing people to “know Jesus,” or “away from Hell and sin.” Or what is worse, I see them saying, “oh well my parents say they are Christians, but I’m not sure that they know Jesus.” Before I came to Smith and immersed myself into a smaller Christian community within the college, I had never heard of such things mentioned. My church never EVER discussed saving people or that people didn’t have a relationship with Jesus. What is more, they never judged people’s walks with God, or questioned the depth of their relationships with Jesus. I was raised to believe that religion (and within that, faith, belief, devotion, etc) is something that is personal and unique to each individual, and therefore should not be subject to people’s judgments. Sometimes I wonder what I learned from my encounters with Christians – is judgment a part of being a Christian? Like a secret handshake or a decoder ring might be? I mean, the Bible preaches, “Judge not lest ye be judged,” yet we as Christians find ourselves the presidents of the Judgement Club of America. All confessions and self-examinations aside, I seek to find the answer to this question: what has happened to the message of Jesus in 21st century America, and on college campuses in particular? I know this analysis might anger some, but I cannot continue to say the right things and skirt around issues, sayings and behaviors that have bugged me all along. Especially since I only have 3 more months on campus before the door to this chapter of my life slams shut behind me.
I don’t understand the necessity to and pressure that is placed on “spread(ing) the word of God” sometimes on college campuses. I think a lot of this confusion comes from a single idea: that those who don’t “know Jesus” (yet again, a phrase that I despise) are destined to burn in Hell, regardless of what type of person they are. I remember this summer a question that someone I was working with asked me. She asked, “Are your parents Christians?” At the time, I was still stuck in the haze of wanting to believe the right things in order to be seen as authoritative and mature, so my answer at the time was fairly predictable. I knew that to have parents who would be deemed “unChristian” would mean that I would have to sit through a painful lecture about how it was my duty to convert them and help them see the light, or else risk having them go to Hell for their unforgivable sins. BS, I’m sorry. People that know my family would be outraged to hear such blasphemy. My church never uses the term “Christians” in the context of describing the congregation. From my memory, we were always referred to as a congregation, not the body of Christ, not Christians, none of that. The term “Christians” strikes me as a 21st century invention to separate and identify those who are “in Christ” and those who aren’t. As if any of this matters to the average American or human being in general. But at the time, I said yes, that my parents were Christians. I don’t think that I could name a specific definition for the term, but I said so anyway. My parents might not identify as “Christians” but they are most certainly followers of God and churchgoing people. Labels are not important to them, as they believe (the teachings of St. Francis of Assisi) that we are supposed to follow God first through our actions and if necessary, use our words. In other words, my church teaches that we must first lead by example – lead through our actions and our ways of life what Jesus taught in the Bible. It is not our duty to walk up to people and ask them if they are going to Heaven or Hell, if they are “saved” or not. Lets face it, that is none of our business. It is not my job as a follower of God to walk up to someone and place judgement on their previous life choices. If they want to come to church, by all means I’ll take them. But they need to come to that on their own. I want no hand or role in bringing them if they are not ready or if it not their well-thought-out choice. I will not pray that people’s souls will be saved, or that they will come to know God. Instead, I will pray for those around me who are suffering, or who have cancer, or who are applying for competitive jobs or graduate school programs. It is not up to me as to who decides that they want to seek out going to church. God touches people’s hearts all at different times, and when He does, hopefully I will be around to answer questions and chat about faith, and eventually, bring them to church.
Something I love so much about this world is how diverse it is, and how people can be diverse without standing out and being separated from others on purpose. Further, one thing I have embraced about my time here at Smith is how diverse the student population is, and how completely different people can come to be the best of friends and no one knows differently. Or rather, no one notices if people make friends with those who are their polar opposites. What I will never be able to grasp is why I have been told that my Jewish or Muslim friends will go to Hell if I don’t help them “come to accept Jesus as their Lord and Savior.” Why is it so important to walk around telling people that their faith and beliefs are not as good as (ours or) mine? In fact, at times, I have gleaned more from my friends of different faiths about the importance of faith than those who share the same beliefs. From my Jewish friends, I have learned to stay faithful, because one day, God will show Himself and recognize our devotion to His teachings and commandments. Further, I have been taught from different religious traditions the importance of finding joy in the small glimpses of Heaven God gives us. But more importantly, I have learned to love the way I think God loves us through my friends of different faiths. They have not said, “well, you don’t believe exactly what I believe so therefore we can’t be friends.” Rather, they have shared with me the nuances and intricacies of their beliefs openly and with love, hoping that understanding will breed acceptance.
Ultimately, I understand why Christians feel the need to “help others see the light,” but as for myself, I personally can’t condone it for myself, for my own life. I am not sure what the light is, or if any of us can really see it yet. But as for myself, I feel that the best justice I can do for others is to work on myself and better my own relationship with God before I can assume that I know what is better for others. As almost everyone knows by now, my relationship with God is like the waves of the ocean – it comes on strong and lingers, but eventually it retreats back into the greater ocean. Eventually, however, the waves always lap back onto the sandy shore with strength and courage, showing themselves to those soaking up the sun – like me. My faith is not always a constant thing – strong and certain all the time, never any doubts of why I believe in the first place. But never in my mind have I said, “Today, I need to go out and make other people believe what I do.” Faith is not universal, and is never the same from person to person. What someone else at Smith might believe won’t ever be precisely the same, no matter what. That is precisely why I can’t “help others come to know Jesus” or “convert the heathens” as many Christians think they need to. I can only work on my own faith and beliefs, allowing it to strengthen and evolve in turn as my life grows and evolves. I understand that some Christians think that they need to “save” people from going to Hell, and I hope and pray that none of my friends end up there, but IT IS NOT UP TO US who goes to Heaven and who must face Hell. I think that God decides who goes where not based solely on who “got saved” or “believed in Jesus Christ as their Lord and Savior,” but rather on who treated those they encountered with loving-kindness and respect; those who looked after others before themselves, and who gave people the credit they have earned and was due to them. Just because you accept Jesus doesn’t mean that you are off scot-free for anything else you might do in the future. Jesus or not, we as humans are expected to treat those we meet and interact with the way that Jesus teaches – with genuine kindness and respect because that is how we are to act, not because we think it is what is expected of us.
I guess the message I’m trying to get across from this whole “rant” is that we should do things because they are what we do, not because we think we have to do them to fit in. Jesus taught us to act with loving kindness because that is what God does; and since God created us perfect beings, we are capable of doing exactly what Jesus preached. We just have to try harder to be ourselves, not who we think we should be to be deemed acceptable to a specific community, such as the Christian “body of Christ.” Because ultimately faith shouldn’t be adopted and explored simply as an initiation rite into a community; the community aspect of faith is a lovely bonus, but not the reason we should choose to believe. If we believe in God and Jesus because of the community, then aren’t we placing our eggs in the wrong basket? Or rather, aren’t we believing for the wrong reasons?
So what am I saying? What’s the point of all this? I have faith in God and the plan He has for my life, but I also need to see that my life doesn’t include “saving” people or telling people they’re destined to burn in hell for their mistakes unless they believe. My faith is just that – mine – and what I do with it is nobody’s business. Just because I’m heading off to seminary in the Fall of 2011 doesn’t mean that I am eager to stand on a street corner preaching the Gospel to the “less fortunate” or the “unsaved.” I won’t even be with people who believe this is the only way to touch the lives of others. God touches our lives in different ways every day, and it is nobody’s business when or how He does this. It is no secret that I believe in God, but I don’t think that I should have the word “CHRISTIAN” tattooed on my forehead because of that. My faith is personal and for the most part, private. I wear a cross around my neck because it symbolizes a set of my beliefs, but it does not fully define who I am, and it does not mean that others have to feel the same.
I honor the faith of others, acknowledging that it is just that – theirs. Why can’t everyone respect that faith is individual and personal, and not something that is cookie-cutter to all Americans or all humans. Lets stop forcing people to believe what we believe. Lets let God touch their hearts and awaken their desires to believe in Him. Because until that happens, religion is just pushy. And in my opinion, that isn’t the purpose behind faith, belief and religion to begin with.