Evolving in Faith

The theme for this Epiphany is homecoming, an exploration of the different places that we call home. So that’s where I will begin.

For me church has been home, both physically and spiritually, since I can remember. One of my earliest memories is being at church feeling the awe and solemnity of the celebration—without yet fully understanding the concept of religion or spirituality. I just KNEW that something significant happened in that space.

Over the years, my feelings about church changed and they continue to change to this very day.

I started life as a Roman Catholic back in Colombia. I loved church with my whole heart, to the point that I wanted to become a nun. However, as I grew up, I started to see certain things that made me feel very uncomfortable. Matters of dogma, matters of justice, matters of truth. One day, in my early adulthood, I made the very hard and scary decision to stop being a Catholic. In a country where 99% of the population is Roman Catholic, it was unheard of for someone to take this step. Nobody left the church; everybody stayed, even if no one believed in or agreed with everything. It was just the way it was.

But I just couldn’t stay; I felt I couldn’t be a person of integrity and be a Roman Catholic at the same time. There were too many questions and no one to discuss them with. I didn’t just want to go with the flow. I wanted to untie my moorings from religion and be free to explore faith in other ways. I guess I got myself into a bit of beautiful trouble.

In Colombia, there weren’t many Christian options that I could explore. So I started studying and practicing yoga and meditation. I eventually found the Buddha’s teachings, with which I also felt very much at home.

I thought I was done with Christianity for good. That is, until I found the Episcopal Church in California some twenty years later.

When my mother died, while in mourning and feeling bereft, my daughter suggested that we go to church. That Sunday, as I stepped into All Saints Carmel I knew that I had come home. The depth of feeling was such that the tears just wouldn’t stop.

I had discovered Christianity again, had rekindled my love for the church, and found renewed inspiration in Jesus’s teachings. I also found a loving community, a wonderful mentor, and a calling to be a priest. But that is not the end of the story…

As Chris reminded us in his inspired sermon a few weeks ago, returning home is not always easy. When Odysseus returned home after twenty years away, he didn’t automatically fit in perfectly as if nothing had changed. Things were different, and there were many challenges he had to overcome.

And that’s the thing, you know. Life is always hard and challenging, even when we return home. Even when we love our home dearly, there are always obstacles to surmount.

Throughout my ordination process, there were always doubts on my part of how I could be a good priest when I had so many questions about organized religion, so many doubts about the depth of my faith and whether I had what it took to work as a representative of the church. I still live with those questions to this day.

In the 25 years I’ve been an Episcopalian, my faith has continued to be transformed. When I was younger I used to think that faith was something you could lose forever. I used to think that dark nights of the soul were crises of faith. Now I understand that faith is not a static monolith. It would be silly to have the same faith we had as little children. No, faith changes and becomes nuanced. Faith is inextricably joined with doubt; you can’t have one without the other.

We have to keep questioning faith, religion, and the history of Christianity in order to grow in awareness.

We recently read in our centering prayer group a remarkable book titled Do I Stay Christian? by Brian McLaren. This ponderous question he asks is relevant to those who take their faith seriously. We need to learn about Church history so that we can avoid repeating it. We have to question what we do as people of faith so as not to become complacent. It is not an easy proposition, but we must do this in order to live with integrity and in service of truth.

As I have grown spiritually, I have come to understand that what I learned as a young Catholic and later as a yogi and Buddha student were all foundations of faith, a faith understood as trust in the power of love.

Bishop Steve Charleston defines it well, “faith is perception. It is how we see. If we see the world around us as nothing but darkness—a darkness we believe we cannot change—then darkness is what we get. But if we see darkness while we believe in light—a light we cannot yet see but know is there—then we get something new: we get possibility—the possibility of change. It all comes down to trust.”

I can now appreciate many of the teachings from Catholic school—things we had to learn by rote. They were Jesus’s teachings distilled into lists, but as a child I was not yet focused on meaning. I can still recite the works of mercy:

To feed the hungry
Give drink to the thirsty
Clothe the naked
Shelter the homeless
Visit the sick
Visit the imprisoned
Bury the dead
Instruct the ignorant
Forgive offenses willingly
Comfort the sorrowful

They are the blueprint for a Christian life! And as we  heard in Isaiah, they were also the blueprint for the people of Israel.

Throughout his ministry, Jesus taught us how to live.

A case in point is today’s gospel, where Jesus gives us three teachings. He had addressed the whole crowd in the sermon of the mount, but these lessons were for his disciples—the original twelve but for us too.

First, he tells them they are the salt of the earth, and warns them about not losing their saltiness. This is puzzling if you don’t know that in ancient Palestine, the salt collected from the Dead Sea was a mixture of minerals and if the salty component disappeared, what was left had no taste. Jesus was telling his disciples not to lose their distinctiveness, that which made them his true followers. In other words, doing works of mercy with compassion and love.

The second thing Jesus told them was that they were the light of the world. This teaching is more challenging because in order to be the light of the world, Jesus’s followers have to shine their own light and not hide it from others. Sometimes we are afraid of showing our true light for fear of being rejected. We hide who we truly are and don’t let ourselves be known, and that is not what Jesus wants from his followers. He wants us to be true to ourselves and to live lives of integrity, even if it means being rejected and even persecuted.

The third teaching has to do with fulfillment of the law and is the hardest one to understand. According to some scholars, Matthew gave us these lines, which are obvious contradictions of what Jesus says and does in the rest of the gospel, in order to bring attention to the fact that after Jesus, the law must always be interpreted within the context of Jesus’s life, death, and resurrection. How I understand this is that fulfilling the law as disciples of Jesus is not simply following the letter of the law, but mainly its spirit.

Life is more complex than a set of rules. Context matters, so we must learn to live with the tension: the tension of not knowing and of living with uncertainty. For that we need to find our inner compass. We need to learn to know ourselves.

And to learn the art of knowing ourselves, we resort to another ancient teaching, a teaching that comes both from Christian mystics and from the Buddha and the yogis: contemplation. This practice teaches self-knowledge. The more you go into your inner space, into the stillness that is within you, the more you feel connected to the Holy Spirit, the Sacred Presence that resides within you.

This, my friends, gives you the courage to stand up and live with integrity; to stand up and act, to do works of mercy; to get into beautiful trouble.

But remember that we’re not all meant to do the same thing. We all have our own gifts and our own calling. So follow your inner compass, live with integrity and you will be guided to do what’s right for you.

As for me and my spiritual journey, here’s what happened next: When I moved from California fifteen years ago, for a host of reasons I won’t go into right now, I thought I was done with church again! That is, until the day when I met Collie Agle and quickly found myself at home in St. Mark’s. Michele received me warmly and gave me carte blanche to start a ministry, and that’s how the centering prayer group began with Collie’s help and connections. It transitioned from in-person to online, and it remains a wonderful example of church and a source of spiritual growth and connection for many in a world which was changed by the pandemic.

St. Mark’s is home…even if sometimes I don’t come on Sundays. One needs perspective to see things with new eyes. The Episcopal Church is home even as I continue to question some of its past history and some of its present ministries. I am still a Christian even if I continue to have issues with the institutional church and its checkered history. The more we learn about ourselves and the world about us, the better tools we have to stand up and act for what’s right and true. That’s how we grow into our full humanity.

And it’s also a good way to get into beautiful trouble!