While we were on vacation a couple of weeks ago, I read a fabulous book. While any book is fairly fabulous when read by the ocean :-), this one really captured my attention and has continued to simmer beneath the surface for me. The book is called Take this Bread: A Radical Conversion and it was written by author Sara Miles.
Having grown up in the church, I am increasingly interested in what draws people to the Christian walk later in their lives…what about Jesus is compelling for them? How does “the church” help in that process of drawing someone to Jesus and how, as it so often does, does the church get in the way? Sara was a completely secular person who wandered into a church at the age of 46, took communion and fell in love with Jesus. Her life up to that point, while fascinating and full of adventure (war coorespondent/ freedom fighter/ chef,) did not in any way seem to be that of a person who would be drawn to the traditional church. Yet, her journey to a life-transforming, world-changing walk with Jesus happened…in spite of her own biases against the church and, frankly, the church’s biases against her. I was taken with her sense of humor, her humility and her tremendous insights into what it means to be a follower of Jesus Christ in a broken world. Most of all, I was moved by her passion for the Lord and her compassion for His children.
Sara’s faith journey eventually leads her to open up a food pantry for the “least of these” in an impoverished, multi-cultural neighborhood in San Francisco. What she learned about herself, her God and her fellow human beings resonated with me on many levels; both in terms of my own love for and frustrations with the church and, more recently, with my life changing experiences at the Lamb Center. Here are a few of my favorite excerpts from the book:
“Caught up in the moment, every moment, I didn’t know that those war years would be formative Christian experiences. They would introduce me not only to big Christian themes–love, death, fear, and sacrifice among them–but to hard lessons about what it means to be a Christian. Long before I went to church or ran a food pantry, wars would reveal my weaknesses and mistakes—sins, to use a word that never occurred to me then—and make me find a way to continue working, past shame. They showed me how helpless I was to save anyone, or to fix suffering, and how it mattered anyway for me to be there with people. I’d have to learn to receive when I was proud and give when I was burned-out and poke around in strange places without knowing what I was going to uncover.”
“…I didn’t ‘deserve’ communion myself now. I wasn’t getting it because I was good. I wasn’t getting it because I was special. I certainly didn’t get to pick who else was good enough, holy enough, deserving enough, to receive it. It wasn’t a private meal. The bread on that Table had to be shared with everyone in order for me to really taste it….I was not going to get to sit by myself and think loftily about how much Jesus loved me in particular. I was not going to get to have dinner, eternally, with people just like me. I was going to get communion, whether I wanted it or not, with people I didn’t necessarily like. People I didn’t choose…but, the people who God chose for me. I ate the bread. Conversion isn’t, after all, a moment: It’s a process, and it keeps happening, with cycles of acceptance and resistance, epiphany and doubt.”
“You can’t be a Christian by yourself was a lesson I though I’d grasped…but the conceit of individual salvation remained a powerfully tempting one. Offering groceries to all comers around the altar, I would discover how painfully like church the food pantry really was: how it asked me to leave the certainties of past behind, tangled me up with people I didn’t particularly want to know, and frightened me with its demand for more that I was ready to give.”
“I think we are called to something harder than being conventional ‘Good Samaritans.’ To understand ourselves, individually and as a church, being rescued by strangers and foreigners, by the wrong people. To understand ourselves, individually and as a church, as beaten, hungry, hurting, lost at the side of the road. Called to touch the parts of ourselves that are strange and damaged and needy. Called to receive love from people we don’t know and have no reason to trust. And only then, in turn, being called to the second part: to go and do the same thing—knowing it will change us in ways we didn’t plan and may not like.”
“All of it pointed to a force stronger than the anxious formulas of religion: a radically inclusive love that accompanied people in the most ordinary of actions–eating, drinking, walking–and stayed with them through fear, even past death. That love meant giving yourself away, embracing outsiders as family, emptying yourself to feed and live for others. The stories illuminated the holiness located in mortal human bodies, and the promise that people could see God by cherishing all those different bodies the way God did. They spoke of a communion so much vaster than any church could contain: one I had sensed all my life could be expressed in the sharing of food, particularly with strangers.
I couldn’t stop think about another story: Jesus instructed his beloved, fallible disciple Peter exactly how to love Him: ‘Feed my sheep.’ Jesus asked, ‘Do you love me?’ Peter fussed: ‘Of course I love you.’ ‘Feed my sheep’ Peter fussed some more. ‘Do you love me?’ asked Jesus again. ‘Then feed my sheep.’
It seemed pretty clear. If I wanted to see God, I could feed people.