Tuesday, February 10, 2015

Can you SMELL what the CHURCH is cooking? Evangelism, Episcopalian-style

My husband likes sports; I like books.  If it is some sort of competition that involves hitting, throwing, bouncing, or kicking a ball, or two people competing in some sort of hand-to-hand combat, he is fully attentive.  I usually read while he’s watching some sporting event.  Once in a while, something causes me to look up from the words on my page.  Professional wrestling fascinates me a bit, with the over-the-top costumes, the soap-opera backstory, and the trash-talking.  My favorite used to be Dwayne Johnson, AKA, the Rock.  Everyone loved the Rock, with his chiseled physique, classic features, and witty discourse.  He had his famous eyebrow, and his catch-phrase, “Can you SMELL what the ROCK is COOKING?”   Those other guys, strutting and posturing, didn’t interest me at all, but the Rock, he was mysterious.  I don’t really know what he was cooking, but you can bet I was enticed by the aroma.  Back in the 2000s, The Rock was the best evangelist in the world of professional wrestling.

Evangelism is a difficult word for many Christians, especially for many Episcopalians, especially for me.  When I hear the words, “Let me tell you about Jesus…” I freeze and look for the nearest exit.  Even now, as a baptized, confessed Christian, an every-Sunday attending, Sunday-school-teacher, vestry member, heavily invested, lay-person in the Episcopal church, I’m a little frightened by the question, “Have you taken Jesus Christ as your personal savior?”  The classic television, or street-corner evangelist reminds me of those screaming wrestlers, proclaiming victory and threatening punishment--ridiculous and a bit crazy.  No way were those weirdos going to threaten me into salvation.  Even my well-meaning friends put me off when they start talking about JEE-sus.  

I had a college friend, on the path towards seminary, who seemed genuinely concerned about my morality.  He often questioned my faith.  He was politely relentless, until I told him, “I know all the answers to your questions.  I passed my catechism.  I sang in the choir.  I went to Vacation Bible School.  I just don’t FEEL the answers anymore.”  He left in frustration.  He was a nice guy, but I wasn’t buying it.  All of his questions felt like threats, no matter how politely he worded them.  I wasn’t going to come back to church through interrogation.

In his book, How (Not) to Speak of God, Peter Rollins gives us this excellent image.  “In a world where people believe they are not hungry, we must not offer food but rather an aroma that helps them desire the food that we cannot provide.”  (Rollins 2006)  This is exactly how evangelism worked for me, and the only way I can manage to swallow it.  Rollins explains that Jesus flavored his teaching with salt, to make people thirst for God.  It is through the hunger and the thirst, through the enticing aroma that arouses our desire, that we find God, not through answering multiple choice questions.  Is God a.  the Father,  b.  the Son, c.  the Holy Ghost, d.  All of the above.  We find our faith through the seeking, through the questioning, through the hunger.

I was hungry for Christ, but I didn’t know it.  Almost ten years ago, I spent some time with my relatives at their church in Georgia.  It’s what you do when your uncle is a priest and you want to hang out with the family.  I remember my uncertainty in the unfamiliar liturgy, as my aunt guided me to the well-worn pages of the prayer book, nudged me to kneel and stand, and led me up to receive communion.  I remember the sermon speaking of social justice and care for the poor and marginalized.  Most of all, I remember the fellowship hour afterwards.  During the Sweet and Low Jazz Tea, members of the congregation snacked, sipped, and supported each other.  I had interesting conversation with a number of people, about my life in Chicago, my views of the South, the latest books I’d read.  No one asked about the state of my immortal soul; they just treated me like a person they would like to know better.  Later that day, I attended a class for new members to the Episcopal church.  I thought I understood that Henry VIII started the church so he could marry Anne Boleyn and take over the church property.  I had no idea that Celtic spirituality was a separate, integral branch of Christianity for centuries before the Wars of the Roses.  I had no idea of the beauty and poetry of the Book of Common Prayer.  I was fascinated.

Upon returning home to the cold north, I asked my uncle, Dan, the priest **, “Are all Episcopal churches like yours?  I think I could go to a church like that.”  Instead of pouncing on an opening to add another convert to the books, he sent me a basic primer of mainline Christian denominations, with thoughtful comments considering my free-thinking views.  I saved the conversation in my email and decided to wait and see.  The aroma from the church drifted into the background, but it lingered, along with my intrigue.  How fascinating!  A church that just met me where I was, didn’t ask me uncomfortable questions, didn’t try to help me, and didn’t exploit the smallest chink in my I-don’t-need-God armor.

After exploring Buddhism, Unitarian Universalism, humanism, and a few other theologies, the hunger for Christ grew a little stronger.  I was craving something and I wasn’t sure what it was.  Hymns from my childhood captured my attention.   I opened up the Bible.  I prayed The Lord’s Prayer.  I stumbled across sermons on facebook and blogs.  I googled churches, and the one that “smelled” the best was the Episcopal Church.  As I stalked the website of St. Ignatius of Antioch Episcopal Church, I saw pictures of people who seemed to enjoy each other’s company, even when they looked like they were working pretty hard.  I read a newsletter article by the priest, who wrote about cleaning up a mess from the Pascal candle, and how he found meaning in the midst of the spilt candle wax.  A few short weeks later, I walked through those red doors, and I have not looked back since then.  Like the Rock to his fans, the Episcopal Church had lured me into its fold.  I could SMELL what the CHURCH was cooking!

Rollins, P.  (2006).  How (not) to speak of God. (5th ed.)  Brewster, MA:  Paraclete Press.
**This particular priest is currently the Episcopal Bishop of Nevada**

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