The First Vow

January 7, 2005

This weekend I become a member of my church. This will be the first time I’ve ever joined a church. When I was thirteen, I was confirmed into my parents’ church, but in my own mind it was something I was doing for my parents. I was kind of uncomfortable with that rationale, but I didn’t have the guts to say, “You know, I just don’t believe in Jesus, and so I don’t think I should become a member,” so I went through with it. I’m not really sorry that I did. The First Congregational Church of Norwood, Massachusetts, has since been part of my extended family. For a small dose of hypocrisy I got a large dose of fellowship and support – and, I imagine, prayer, and who knows where I would be now if not for the prayers of my parents and the prayers of their friends in church. Still, you can see why I consider becoming part of Park Slope Presbyterian an unprecedented event in my life.

What’s going to happen this Sunday is that I’ll stand up before the congregation and give my assent to five vows. I’m going to write the vows here, followed by some of the stories that will be in the back of my mind as I take these vows.

One: Do you acknowledge yourself to be a sinner in the sight of God, justly deserving his displeasure and without hope except through his sovereign mercy?

My first year out of college, my friend Matt and I decided to live together in Boston. We had grown up together in the suburbs of Boston and were both having difficulty making sense of our lives. When the first gulf war came along, Matt had put his undergrad work on hold to help a classmate who had realized he was a conscientious objector only after joining the Marine Corps reserves.

(This classmate, Sam Lwin, makes a fascinating appearance in a NYTimes editorial: see http://www.refuseandresist.org/war/art.php?aid=587)

When I graduated, Matt was still trying to put his degree together, and not at all sure how he wanted to do it.

Meanwhile, I had left college and returned home without a plan, because my only plan had been to do Teach for America, and they had wisely rejected me. So when September came the only thing I knew I would be doing that year was teaching Sunday School at First Congregational, my folks’ church.

It was weird: when I’d left four years earlier, I felt out of place at that church because I couldn’t believe in Jesus. Now I felt out of place there because I did. My encounter with evangelical Xianity in college had left me convinced that I couldn’t be that kind of Xian with sincerity, but also that I couldn’t help but believe in an evangelical God. First Congregational was part of the UCC, a liberal denomination overall, and the minister’s interpretation of the creeds was a lot more flexible than that of my college friends. Still, out of a kind of desperation, I agreed to serve as a mentor for a confirmand and as a co-teacher for a Sunday School class, knowing that I was “Christian enough” for this church even if I wasn’t “Christian enough” by my own criteria. Some serious cognitive dissonance going on.

When Matt called and floated the idea of moving in together in Boston, it was a relief. I had known him since we were eleven and our friendship was something that gave a sense of continuity to my life. I got a job to pay the rent, and started thinking about what to do next year. I looked into a lot of service-oriented programs, because I thought Jesus might be able to grant me peace if I could fulfill his call to show mercy to other people. One program in particular drew me – a community of Franciscan nuns in Baltimore that sheltered and nurtured a small team of volunteers. I thought the Catholic environment might give me a context for my evangelical beliefs that would be validating in some ways but challenging in others.

Meanwhile, Matt got to know me better than he ever had before, and more than he ever could have wished. Every now and then, I would have a bizarre outburst of anger. Once I grabbed him by the lapels and shook him, snarling, “I’m going to kill you!” It wasn’t just my behavior that disturbed him, however – it was the context of my behavior, my restless search for moral perfection. I could get self-righteous about curiously small details, like whether or not we should kill the cockroaches that invaded our basement apartment. I had to find the right answer to every situation – if I did something wrong, I had to make amends, and then do a lot of soul-searching to try to patch up the flaw in my character.

By the time springtime arrived, Matt had had enough, and he started to tell me so. The worst thing was, I knew he was right because I was angrier at him than I had ever been before. I hated him as the religious leaders of his day hated Jesus: for telling the truth. The truth was, in my ruthless drive to be good, I was creating something bad. I had been doing a lot of hard work, trying to harness the spiritual resources of Xianity and use them to make myself perfect. It was all for nothing – worse than nothing, because it would ultimately place a barrier between myself and other people.

That was a major lesson for me in what it means to be a sinner. Even if you make “not being a sinner” the most important thing in your life, perhaps especially if you do that, you cannot escape the corruption that festers at your heart. Jesus had come to offer freedom from sin, and I had twisted his teachings, the example of his life and ministry, and made of them a crueler prison than the one I had been in before meeting him. It’s an old old story.

I got into Francis House a few weeks after those talks with Matt, and when I looked at the acceptance letter, I realized there was something wrong with this picture. I couldn’t go into any kind of Xian community with a straight face, expecting to be anything more than a kind of spiritual voyeur. I remember an anguished phone conversation with the Sister in charge of the house, in which I hedged and hedged until she said, sharply, “Maybe this just isn’t the place for you.” It was time for me to drop the whole pretense of being a Xian.

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