December 11, 2015

That Girl

I had the privilege of hearing the voice of Renita Weems recently. The Rev. Dr. Weems is ordained in the AME Church, a scholar of Hebrew Bible, and a fantastic preacher and writer. She delivered the annual Margaret Parker Memorial Lecture at the convention of the Episcopal Diocese of Los Angeles. Her voice took me back to a time that is hard for me even to remember.

I was nineteen years old: a brand new Christian, still reeling from the strange and powerful experience of discovering that what began as an academic exploration of faith had somehow let Jesus into my heart and soul. I was just starting to confess to a very few of my dearest friends that I thought this Christian thing might be happening to me. I had started to wear a little onyx cross on a silver chain, but I kept it tucked inside my shirt most of the time.

I was looking for next steps. I was pretty sure that one of the things that Christians did was go to church, so I thought I had better try that out. The campus chapel was advertising a guest preacher, and her sermon was called “The Road to Emmaus.” I didn’t know where Emmaus was or who might have wanted to go there or why, but the chapel was walking distance from my dorm, and it seemed like as good a place to start as any. I dressed up as close as I could get to what I imagined might be a “Sunday best” sort of outfit and went to church. I heard the wonderful Renita Weems, and I took communion. Jesus and I were officially a thing.

Twenty-five years later, as priest in the church, it’s hard for me to remember or imagine what it was like to be so new, so outside the world of church and so unfamiliar with the most basic stories and traditions of Christianity. I didn’t know anything. I didn’t know about baptism or liturgy or seasons. I’m not sure I knew what Easter celebrated.

Remembering my early Christian self, I can see that even the most broad-minded and newcomer-friendly segments of the church make a million and one assumptions about what people know and what makes sense and what they are looking for. I make those assumptions too. 

Renita Weems took me back, and helped me to remember a time before any of it made sense. I went to church because Jesus was pushing me forward. I didn’t go looking for a new social circle, or a friendly pastor or an easy-to-read bulletin. I went with a sense of urgency. I went looking for a place that would call me to remake my life and be someone new. I went to check out what Jesus’ other followers were up to, to see if there was anyone around I could model my life after. 

I realized this week that neither my church nor I am ready for the 19-year-old me to walk through the door. I’m going to try to take that 19-year-old with me as I go forward in ministry, to keep that sense of utter strangeness before me as I preach and serve my community, to offer something that would feed and nourish her, and not only those of us who already know it all.

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