Although we’re spread across three different states my two best friends and I make a point of getting together annually and I’m just back from spending thirty-six hours in their company.
Catlin lives at an ashram. She’s a street performer, massage therapist, artist and fiddler. When I was in seminary Catlin was traveling with the Roma people around Eastern Europe and when I was just learning how to preach Catlin was learning how belly dance with old, Jewish ladies in Brighton Beach. She came to Rose’s and my apartment to show us how. Once, when my church threw a Halloween party for kids from public housing I told Catlin that most of them didn’t have costumes. She showed up at the party with a trunk of antique straw hats, uniforms and kimonos and spent the evening dressing the kids up and painting their faces.
Michele is from Brooklyn. When we were freshmen in college her guitar, multiple earrings and biker boyfriend made her the coolest person I’d ever met. She had the whole New York subway memorized, travelled through Manhattan effortlessly and had done so since adolescence. Michele took me for my first time to Times Square at night, to listen to jazz and with the little compass on her backpack helped me learn not panic when I have no idea where I am. Until a few years ago Michele was also an ariel dancer. I’ve seen her wrap a leg around ariel silks and float in mid- air like a weightless figure in a Chagall painting.
While Michele and Catlin have had eclectic and interesting lives, my life as a priest has put me in an unusual category that’s all my own. None of our families or extended communities of friends could be described as remotely religious in any traditional sense, so during this visit I finally asked: is it weird for them that I’m a priest? Michele laughed and Catlin said “Yes! But I like that my friend is a ‘Jesus freak’ who doesn’t want me to change.”
Change Catlin??? The thought is anathema. Who’s more alive?! Change Michele?! Who has a better moral compass?!
Of course Christians have earned the reputation of wanting to convert everyone around them, insisting that the mortal souls of those who will not conform are in jeopardy of eternal damnation. We say this threat is posed by a God we Christians say we know best as the one who promised heaven to his betrayers (all of us) and as his last act offered paradise to a criminal on a cross.
If my Jesus has enough room for his own best friends and their well-documented failures and hypocrisy he must have room for mine too- whose failures are far less epic and who have made loving life their vocation. There couldn’t be a heaven without Catlin and Michele and I know my God agrees. Didn’t he leave heaven after all to come looking for you and me? Didn’t he say he leaves the ninety-nine sheep to find one? Did he say he gives up and stops looking eventually? Or did he say he doesn’t come back until that sheep is found?
Christian Evangelism is, I hope, sharing that joy Jesus gave us and believing in his ability to do all of the finding this broken world requires: sometimes despite us and sometimes through us.
I don’t lose any sleep over Michele and Catlin’s life with God. Like whatever it is they see that has caused them to shower love on me for all these three decades, the Christ in them makes me skip and sing and makes me a better priest for you.
Here’s to ariel dancers, street performer and the God who loves surprises.