In 1974 my mother, father and I lived in the pot-haze of Redwood City, California which is less than an hour from Haight-Ashbury. My Dead Head Dad had wild hair, a beard and sued TWA when they said he would be terminated if he didn’t get a hair-cut and a shave. My bedroom was a pile of blankets on the living room floor in our tiny apartment. Once, during a party there a Hell's Angel brought her bike up the stairs, parked by the couch, sat me on the handlebars and taught me to tie my shoes.
No one had to teach me to question authority. My parent’s peers were coming home from an unwinnable war that split the country in half. Martin Luther King was killed the year before I was born and Stonewall happened six months later. When Richard Nixon resigned my Dad sat me in front of our twelve by fourteen inch, black and white TV and said “Watch this.”
Ten years later my parents were divorced and my Mother, brother and I moved into a house with our Grandfather. Since his wife died, Granddad seemed to think this arrangement would offer him a second chance to have that 1950s family again where no one challenged his authority and dinner was on the table every night at 5pm. As far as I was concerned there was no way.
That said, we did start going to church in South Jersey where 1952 was alive and well. The mostly elderly couples dressed in their Sunday best filed into the same pews they’d been sitting in for decades, fifteen minutes before the church bell rang. During coffee hour one day a choir member passed around a commemorative plate from the church’s fiftieth anniversary. Glazed into the enamel was an artist’s depiction of the church with a family standing in front of it. A mother and child stared adoringly at the father of the family, who with hands raised to the sky looked as if he expected Jesus to air lift them out of the world momentarily. I told my Mom that the guy on the plate was saying “Thank you, Lord Jesus for making me a straight, white guy!’”
As snotty as I was, the members of this little church were not dissuaded. It’s hard to resist a group of people who wrap their arms around you at the Peace, invite you Christmas caroling, to a picnic and ask to read your bad poetry. In Redwood City I knew what we were against. Church is where I starting thinking about what I was for. And sitting in the fourth pew down to the left is where I first heard the Gospel.
And Jesus said, “Stop showing off and stop worrying. Feed people. Love your enemies because God does. Have time for children. Share. Be grateful. Welcome people whose ways are foreign to you because God will use them to show you how to be Christian. Be happy to be last. Forgive. Never be afraid. Love so much you look ridiculous. Then love more.”
Sometimes I really couldn’t believe what I was hearing Rotarians, house wives and auto mechanics read from pulpit of the First Baptist Church of Pitman New Jersey with its perfectly mowed lawn and American flag next to the piano. Almost anything Jesus said up-ended the culture wars between my grandparents and parents but that was nothing. His words erased national boarders, political parties and any religious doctrines that you hide behind thinking they’ll exempt you from caring about people. And if we don’t like it, if we call ourselves his disciples and want to keep lugging a big bag of grudges around, Jesus advises tossing them or ourselves in the lake.
In this time, when the political and social unrest of my childhood seem low stakes in comparison, I’ve been spending a lot of time wondering about how to be a priest. Here’s what I’ve got:
When being a patriot requires vilifying anyone, including villains, in the name of Christ I can’t be a patriot.
There are no exceptions to the Biblical rule that we’re supposed to welcome the stranger.
The poor, the least and the vulnerable are the church’s priority.
No practicing Christian is exempt from forgiving.
On the days I don’t like that I should go jump in the lake.
Don’t let the manicured lawns, the vintage church plates and chicken noodle casseroles fool you. Christianity can be the most subversive thing in the world.
The Rev. Laurie Jean Wurm