This I Believe

Jeffrey - Greenwich 06830, Connecticut
Entered on June 5, 2006
Age Group: 50 - 65
Themes: tolerance

Religion Among the Vegetables

A few afternoons ago, I was attempting the seemingly innocent chore of buying zucchini and yellow squash in the produce section of the grocery store. Looking back on it, maybe it was just one of those days. One of those last straw kind of days. I had on my black clergy suit and my clerical collar as usual and thought I was just seeking out things for dinner when I heard a kind of assertive voice behind me say: “Tell me, how do I get to heaven?” It didn’t sound like a real question. Not like the rich young man in scripture who plaintively asked Jesus: “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” He really sounded troubled and searching and wanting to know.

This voice didn’t sound that way to me. It sounded more like it was going to be a quiz for me and some kind of affirmation for the person inside the voice behind me. I turned and found myself face to face with a fellow who looked about as assertive as his voice. I was still trying to figure out dinner while I spoke with him and, unfortunately, thought such an odd conversation among the vegetables could use a little levity. I was wrong. “How do you get to heaven? Practice,” I said.

He had obviously never heard the joke about Carnegie Hall. An assertive needer of affirmation, quiz giver, and non-music lover with no sense of humor. Just how I had hoped to end my day.

“I’m serious” he said. Well, I could see that the zucchini would have to wait. Some other produce shoppers looked like their purchases could wait too as they looked our way. So, I turned to him and said: “Have faith. Come to know that God loves you, and then spend the rest of your life loving God.” I actually kind of liked that answer. He actually kind of didn’t.

By this time we were drawing a gaggle of fellow shoppers who had stopped shopping altogether and instead had begun staring. “What about Allah? False Gods? Which God should we follow?” he asked. I told him that there was just one God. “You don’t really think there are two or more do you? We just experience and perceive God in different ways.” Well, now I had just made him mad. “Do you believe in Jesus Christ?” he asked. I thumped my clerical collar and said: “Are you just trying to insult me now?” As the shoppers totally stopped shopping and kept staring, he told me a little more than emphatically that he knew plenty of men who had gone to seminary who didn’t really believe in Jesus. I told him that probably wasn’t true. Well, I told him something like that, and I must confess that my language may have been a bit more earthy than that. “Well then, what do you believe about Jesus?” he asked. So I quoted him the first part of the 14th Chapter of the Gospel of John. I thought he should at least have been a little impressed with my capacity for memorization, if nothing else. He wasn’t.

I thought we were done. We weren’t. “What are the fruits of the Spirit?” he asked. But, before I would say anything, he started reeling off the list of love, joy, peace, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control, and patience. “And you haven’t been showing any patience at all” he said. “Not you and not today” I shot back as I picked up just a couple of random and not very well selected zucchini and yellow squash and departed hence as he began reciting the works of the flesh: impurity, anger, drunkenness, carousing, idolatry, sorcery, and, as he faded out of earshot, licentiousness.

What is it with us lately, this need for such certainty? This need for us to be so right, so sure, so etched in stone about life and politics and religion and anything else that matters? And too bad, but that means you have to be wronger than wrong. No, it’s more than that. If you don’t agree with me, there must be something wrong with you, about who you are, and not just what you believe.

Well, certainty is selling a lot of tickets today. But the kind of certainty being sold and bought is costly. It brings with it a narrowing world and a really cramped existence. It brings a lack of humility, a lack of charity, a lack of humanity, and a lack of generosity about life itself. And it can bring about much too hurriedly selected zucchini.

I think that part of why we fear differentness is because we have such a hard time even understanding ourselves, much less anybody else. Self-acceptance is a hard won battle that takes most of us a lifetime. And it usually is a very fragile kind of acceptance. Throw some differentness into that mix and we can feel as unsettled as we ever have. So, we spend our time defending ourselves rather than really understanding ourselves. We stand our ground even when we are not so sure of the exact ground we are on. Polarized is what they say we are….in politics, and the culture wars, and the war itself, and who is right about religion and morality and the list just gets longer and longer every day.

We are different. That is just how the world is. We believe different things about almost everything. And we believe the same things differently. Good for us. Being different should just be the way we see the world and all the people we encounter in it, instead of thinking that everybody else has to be won over, won against, beaten, convinced of our rightness, and duly apologetic about their wrongness. That kind of thing is making more and more of us from different faiths not very good company to be with. And I am convinced that God would want more from us than that. More from all of us in God’s complicated world who say we want to follow God. Believe in God. Worship God. Even love God with our differing hearts, and our varied strengths, and our sometimes doubtful minds. And try to love all the other people God has created to make life more interesting for us.

That is the challenge isn’t it? Personally and corporately? Yet, the world we have in 2006 has become almost antithetical to this challenge. I think the trouble with human beings is that we are just not curious enough about each other. Curiosity about each other is the opposite of being polarized. It is freeing. It is encouraging. It is like light coming into what was a very dark room. It is like fresh air wafting into a place that has felt so closed up until now. It means that the otherness of somebody is to be respected and learned from, rather than being seen as only the cause of our own lack of real confidence.

Well, I’m tired of being polarized. It isn’t interesting. I want a life that is more curious. I want a faith that let’s other people be. I want to learn more about this beneficence of God, this creativity of God that extends far beyond me and people like me. I want a life that gets out of my own way. I need a life that is willing and imaginative and accepting. I need a faith that can sit lightly with mystery and ambiguity, maybe especially ambiguity, and paradox too.

We are different. And yet part of our common humanity is that we long for connections with that differentness. We long to understand others and ourselves too, if we care enough, if we are human enough.

How do you get to heaven? Have faith. Come to know that God loves you and then spend the rest of your life loving God. Surely there must be other followers of Christianity, of Judaism, and of Islam who would want the same thing, who would be curious about what the other believes and what really makes us different and what we hold in common. If they are looking for me, I can usually be found in the produce section.