Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Going home again

American novelist Tom Wolfe once said, "You can't go home again." Insofar as going home is the fantasized return to the way things were at some time in the past, he's absolutely right. You can return to a place or people, but it's not the same. You're not the same and neither are they.

I'm thinking about this as I've accepted a call to return to my home congregation, St. Mark's Episcopal in Lappans MD, as a temporary (9 month) part-time Assistant Rector with the charge of working on evangelism and communications. Some may wonder about the first part of that charge as many think Episcopalians don't "do evangelism." Somehow that "e-word" has become a loaded one and strikes fear into the hearts of many mainline Christians who immediately conjure up images of street preachers haranguing passers by. If that's the image your thinking of when you think of "evangelism," that's not what I'm talking about either.

I was listening to Marcus Borg being interviewed yesterday on NPR (don't ask me the program name, I didn't catch it!). I read his book The Heart of Christianity and I highly recommend it - especially to those for whom a literal Biblical interpretation leaves them cold. He made the comment that the decline we have witnessed in the church (attendance and people who identify themselves as Christian) has much to to with Biblical literalism. He feels that many have fallen away because the paradigm of only taking the Bible as literally, factually acurate has not worked for those of us living in the age of scientific discovery and technological progress.

I saw this with my father-in-law. In many ways, he was post-modern ... before there was a word coined for it! He was raised by a mother who was a Southern Baptist and took the Bible as the absolutely factual and literal word of God. When he went to Japan in WWII, he was part of General MacArthur's occupation force. What he saw there marked him. He never talked about it, but we got a glimpse of it when we went through his personal effects after he died. He was in Hiroshima three months after the atomic bomb - we have pictures of the devastation. He encountered people who did not know about Christianity, but who were genuine and good people. He saw the worst of war. He then returned to his family of origin whose Biblical literalism and black and white thinking just didn't square with what he'd been through. After his mother died, he stopped going to church completely.

I can't say for sure, but I think he came to a place where he thought that if being a Christian meant having to take the Bible literally as inerrant fact, he didn't want any part of it. The idea that there was another way to interpret the Bible (as metaphor and image) just didn't occur to him. We had some good conversations about other interpretations when he was alive. It usually began with him saying, "Well, you know I don't believe that crap, but do you think ..." and what followed would be a very interesting question on faith. Whether it was the literalism of the creation stories in Genesis (yes, stories ... Genesis 1 and 2 are different accounts!), or whether or not Jonah really did get swallowed by a great fish, or why did God choose the Jews, he had lots of interesting questions about the faith.

I think one of the things I value about the Episcopal Church is that it is a place where questions are honored and even celebrated. To me, that's part of evangelism. Evangelism comes from the Greek (yes, the father in My Big Fat Greek Wedding would be at home here). Euangelion means to tell good news. That's what being an evangelist is - someone who tells good news. I think it's good news that you can come to an Episcopal church with all your doubts, questions and even unbelief and not be judged or condemned - we think God loves you right where you are and will love you and be patient with you as you wrestle with your faith!

So I am going home again, in a way, but in a different role to help tell (and teach others to tell) the good news of what God is up to in our area.


David Winfrey said...

Welcome back to Washington County! I've lived in the DC area, and the back roads are definitely more fun to explore out here.

Lauralew said...

I became an Episcopalian due to my inability to square Life with what the literalists said. Thanks for this.