The pelican papers

A big bird’s eye view

Finding Jesus in time and memory

Posted by Ron George on June 28, 2017

to look life in the face, by Kate Delancel

Some years ago, I wondered aloud what de-theologized Christianity would look like. (That post is here.) Nowadays, I’m writing a memoir, trying to figure out what in the world happened to me over the past seven decades. I didn’t think it would be this hard. I’ve never had much creative imagination, which is why I don’t write fiction, but I’m astonished at how much creative imagination goes into writing one’s memories. There’s been a steep learning curve for me as a writer and as a person with at least a few remaining vestiges of memory.

Memories are stories we tell ourselves about ourselves, and we keep changing them as we interpret and reinterpret our experience. They are not just so much data filed away for retrieval. Oddly enough, it’s taken me almost two years to figure out that my story is about coming to terms with God. People who know me best will say, Well, yeah, Ron! Frankly, I really don’t know what I was thinking 180,000 words ago when I conceived of religion as a chapter and not the book itself. So much for the first draft.

So, I’ve started over, which I’m told is not uncommon for first-time memoirists. The process seems to be one of refining what seems fleeting and, at times, incoherent – memories of long ago – into something coherent and perhaps meaningful not only for the writer but for readers as well. A lot of journaling goes into memoir writing. What follows is distilled from a recent bout with my journal and the second draft of my life-story recalled.

The only goal I ever pursued with passion was being ordained to the priesthood of The Episcopal Church. It’s the only thing I’ve ever felt so passionate about that I was willing to barge off to seminary, uprooting my family, a longhaired cat and a nascent career at the Dallas Morning News, to study and pray my ass off for 33 months. As for anything else I’ve ever done – all day jobs, driven by the need to earn a living.

The problem with my passion for the priesthood: I didn’t have the slightest clue about what being a pastor was all about. I envisioned the priesthood, first and foremost, as a sacramental office. I was ordained to be a sacramental minister. Pastoring, I believed, grew out of that. There was no other reason for me to be involved in people’s lives except that I was ordained to administer sacraments, a person appointed for the limited purposes of transmitting sacramental grace into the world. Preaching was secondary and grew out of the pastoral office. It may be that priests finally become pastors in the field, so to speak; in any case, my field training was cut short. I left the ministry under a cloud after six years in the vineyard. (That’s a long story that won’t be told here, but there’s certainly a case to be made that I should not have been ordained in the first place. I am officially retired from the ministry, but I’m also deposed; i.e., forbidden to perform sacramental ministry or hold pastoral office.)

Communion Eucharist 2, created by St. Takla Haymanout Coptic Orthodox Church
Alexandria, Egypt

In retrospect, I wonder whether the idea of sacramental ministry is consonant with the ministry of Jesus. The sacramental system emerged as the church developed and spread through the Roman Empire. All those structures were, in essence, governmental. All those doctrines – of the sacraments, for example – grew out of church experience of worshipping Jesus as the son of God, but Jesus himself would not have recognized those structures, those ideas; indeed, Jesus may have sought to overthrow them as being way too long on apparatus and not nearly strong enough as gospel ministry – healing the sick, comforting and caring for the poor, the destitute, preaching the good news of God’s steadfast love for all people; and, oh, by the way, the world is coming to an end. It all sounds so implausible, now.

So, do I still consider myself a priest? Yes, but here’s the dilemma: How in the world can I think of myself that way, since the idea of supernatural God is no longer meaningful to me. On the other hand, I am still interested in exploring a naturalistic way of interpreting Jesus then and now. Can I not be made “perfect,” somehow, by distilling from the Jesus Tradition that which makes sense in a scientific age? Can we not get along without Jesus being made into superman – God Incarnate? Please?

Well, of course, comes the answer, but don’t expect to remain a member of the Body of Christ, the Community of Faith, the Church.

Don Vito Corleone once remarked that it was Barzini all along. For me, it was the church all along; and now, devoid of faith, the path away from the church seems inevitable, and that’s where my struggle lies. Somehow, I need the church, where I can follow Jesus, not the risen lord seated at the right hand of God but the wise man from Nazareth who sought to teach his own generation that the only thing that truly heals the world is Love – capital L, and by that I don’t mean the love of God, but the phenomenon of Love that transcends individual self-interest to enable and empower altruism, self-giving love of the sort powerfully incarnated by Jesus, for whom the greatest of all Love was giving up one’s life for one’s friends.

Jesus of Nazareth, produced by SnikerDoodle Studio

Love and forgiveness. That’s God in action in the world, if God there be; and if, somehow, we’re capable of internalizing that truth, we will heal ourselves of the pain we seem intent upon causing one another in the name of politics, wealth, power, etc. There are at least seven deadly sins – pride, covetousness, lust, anger, gluttony, envy and sloth – and all of them are remedied by Love and Forgiveness.

Could anything be more simple and yet seem so far-fetched?

So, let us remember Jesus, who gave his life to show us the greater love, who died with the truth on his lips that love and forgiveness bring about something he called the kingdom of God (because he believed in God as Our Father) but which would be manifest in time and space – what else is there? – as peace on Earth and goodwill towards all humanity.

Jesus still would be the prince of peace, prince of an earthly kingdom, a man worthy of praise and honor, a man with whom all of us who believe in his word (not that he was the so-called Word made Flesh) would claim kinship – as our brother, teacher and friend, whose continuing presence is in every act of love and forgiveness committed in his name.

Jesus doesn’t have to be God for us to remember him in the breaking of bread; to baptize/confirm in his name, not for eternal salvation but as initiation into his community of faith; to absolve as a symbolic ministry of forgiveness; to anoint as a symbolic ministry of healing in the name of Jesus the healer; to bless the marriages of all couples seeking to become members of the community of faith; to ordain for ministry in his name those called and gifted to lead.

That sounds like church to me; and, of course, it would be purged of supernaturalism, and we would not ever believe Jesus was divine. The Bible? Not much of it pertains to a de-theologized church, but where there is beauty, love and forgiveness, then let the scriptures speak. The sacraments? Keep all of them as symbolic ways of meaning to give an account of our life together. The creeds? Forget them as culture-bound expressions of a time long past, administrative tools grown rusty and irrelevant. The Lord’s Prayer? Well, take a bite off the front and drop the doxology, which wasn’t part of the original biblical transmission anyway, and we have this: May we receive our bread this day; may our sins be forgiven as we forgive others; may we be saved from ourselves and times of trial; and may we be delivered from evil. Amen.

We don’t know much about the historical Jesus, but we have a pretty good idea of what the Jesus Tradition says about this itinerant Jewish rabbi who had a profound effect upon his followers and whose death (and the myth of his resurrection) propelled them to proclaim “good news.” What is that good news today? Not that we can be saved from eternal damnation by believing that Jesus rose from the dead, but that love and forgiveness can heal the world and save us from ourselves – for we do seem destined to destroy ourselves, if not by nuclear holocaust then by environmental destruction.

Yes, we do have a friend in Jesus, but he doesn’t reign in heaven. He lives in the community of faith, a community of remembrance and reflection upon the meaning of sacrificial love; and, to the extent that we are inspired to act in his name, we are animated to love as Jesus loved, to approach his standard of total self-giving even while knowing that we likely will fall short. Nothing supernatural about it. We feel it. It’s real and it comes to us through the gathering of the community and the breaking of bread. By the way, what I call The Way of Jesus in community doesn’t have to happen “at church,” but can happen anywhere – two or three believers can “make it happen.”

Yeah, it’s a stripped-down version of a very broad and rich tradition – but let’s just call it a more portable upgrade from ancient, outdated supernaturalism. Let Jesus be Jesus without all the baggage and misconceptions from a time long past. Let’s embrace what remains a vital, perhaps critical idea – that Love will fix it. All of it. All of us.

No, this idea will never get traction in the so-called real world, but it’s more refreshing – to me, at least – than wondering why the supernatural version seems to be a spectacular failure.

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3 Responses to “Finding Jesus in time and memory”

  1. THIS. ALL OF THIS. I have never been able to express my own beliefs in coherent thoughts or words, and Dad. You just did it for me. THANK YOU.

  2. bernrds said

    I really believe you express your struggle well, Ron. I believe that struggle and the suffering in that struggle is a real path to the Energy that is God. For me, there is an important distinction between Jesus, the divinely inspired person, and The Christ, that part of the Energy that chose to do what it inevitably must by it’s nature do: love us. That is the salvation, the joy, the love.

  3. Patsy Durham said

    Hmmmmmmmm. Lots to disagree with you about here, but then you would expect that from your “Most Conservative Friend” who still clings to, trusts in, and believes in your so-called Supernatural Version. I prefer to call Him Divine and I think that’s what makes HIM different.

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