At one time I considered myself a seeker. In college I had a split major in English and Philosophy, and during that period I dipped my toe in the waters of youth group born-again evangelism. It didn’t last long. I found the waters contaminated, but it was a stage in my spiritual life.
Buddhism also piqued my curiosity as a young man, but I found sitting “lotus” was so uncomfortable my efforts to reach a higher state of being was doomed. I continue to admire its principles but I dropped the practice.
Later, in middle age the search led me to the smells and bells of Episcopalian ritual. “Peace be with you.” That stage lasted longer, but I quit the institutional observation when the homophobic parish vestry expelled the gay Dean on trumped up charges of fiscal mismanagement. Once again the religious was contaminated by human interference.
As a writer, I love a good story, and Christ’s story one of the most imaginative and compelling ever written. At the risk of a lightning strike and choosing to ignore Pascal’s wager, I am no longer an observant Christian. But once in the fold, it’s hard to not wait for it “to come around on the guitar” as Arlo Guthrie says.
This is Holy Week. Palm Sunday. Spy Wednesday. Maundy Thursday. Good Friday. Holy Saturday. And, Easter. You may not be tuned in to the calendar dates, but it’s hard to miss the other things. Colored eggs. Lilies. Puffed up advertising sections. Bonnets? Easter dinners. And today, on Good Friday, a black draped cross to remind us that a Jew was murdered on a god-forsaken Palestinian hill in old Jerusalem.
So, what is this blog about? In the middle of Holy Week, I’m going back to the well looking for something or somebody to admire in honor of the calendar celebration. It’s hard. With the unseemly conflation of politics and religion in America, my gut is predisposed to cast them all out. Yes, there are still some notable Christians who live lives that honor His life.
To be clear, this is not about politics and religion. This is about three Christians I’ve singled out to celebrate. And, who are these three designated hitters? One is a writer. One a comedian. And, one is the head of the Catholic Church. I know I could have found more, but for this purpose three is plenty.
Last week, Ann Lamott wrote about her upcoming 68th birthday (April 13). If you don’t know her, Ms. Lamott is a crazy funny, deep thinking, teacher, and original writer who also happens to be a divorced mother, recovering alcoholic, and born-again Christian. It’s not because she’s a Christian that I admire her. It’s the fact that she lives like I imagine Jesus wanted all of us to live – with concern for others, a heart full of forgiveness, and a giant sense of humor. Here’s what she wrote about her birthday:
So Sunday I will celebrate the absolutely astonishing miracle that I, specifically, was even born. As Fredrick Buechner wrote, “The grace of God means something like, “Here is your life. You might never have been, but you are because the party wouldn’t have been complete without you.” I will celebrate that I have shelter and friends and warm socks and feet to put in them, and that God or Gus found a way to turn the madness and shame of my addiction into grace, I’ll shake my head with wonder, which I do more and more as I age, at all the beauty that is left and all that still works after so much has been taken away. So celebrate with me. Step outside and let your mouth drop open. Feed the poor with me, locally or, if you want to buy me something, make a donation to UNICEF. My party will not be the same without you.
I could write more about Ann Lamott’s impact on my life and writing, but this is about three people, who happen to be Christians, not just one.
Number two is the comedian, Stephen Colbert. He is a master at improvisation, and though I take issue with the way he stereotypes older people, I believe he is the real deal in living his Christian beliefs. Stephen, the youngest of eleven children, was born into a Catholic family but lost his father and two siblings in an Eastern Airlines plane crash when he was 10. “In interviews, Colbert has described his parents as devout people who also strongly valued intellectualism and taught their children it was possible to question the church, and still be Catholic.” (Wikipedia). But, the personal tragedy did not destroy his faith. He made peace with it and continued to live it.
What I admire about Lamott and Colbert is not their Christian belief but their willingness to speak openly about its importance when association with religion has become toxic and partisan, more a political than spiritual act. I know both have strong political views but neither wears their faith as a badge of right-thinking and virtue. Faith, for them, is a personal moral compass.
Number three is Pope Francis who unlike the other two is a true spiritual leader. Widely regarded as a placeholder when he was elected. He was a compromise between the conservative and liberal wings of the College of Cardinals, and at 74 no one expected him to have a long papacy. But, he has endured and because of his longer tenure has changed our perception of the Holy Father.
As the first Jesuit Pope, Francis has chosen to eschew the luxurious trappings and privileges of his exalted position to model the simple life Jesus advocated for the 1.2 billion Catholics who look to him for guidance. I know it annoys those Cardinals who feel they’re entitled, but there are no more convoys of Mercedes limos conspicuously arriving in St. Peter’s Square these days.
For what it’s worth, Francis and I were born on the same day, December 17th, one year apart. I defer to him in all matters spiritual, and for many reasons, spiritual and temporal, I hope he lives forever and that it trends down.
M and I lived just a few blocks from the Vatican in 2016 and stood in the square beneath his apartment window one Sunday morning to hear him address the crowd. It felt then that we were in the presence of a humble servant of God. We weren’t there for spiritual nourishment, but a little of that came with the experience.
So, these are the thoughts triggered this Holy Week. Today is Good Friday, the day an innocent man was crucified by a political hack who lacked courage and caved to a bunch of fearful partisans who saw him as a threat. Yes, the cross will be draped in black to remind us of another day when courage was conspicuous by its absence. I will also be remembering these three admirable beings who walk the walk today while maintaining their deeply creative senses of humor.