"My house shall be called a house of prayer for all peoples.” That’s what Isaiah says today. It’s a simple idea, but because Isaiah knows that people groups can’t always easily connect across our differences, he breaks it down a bit more: not just us, he writes, but “the foreigners who join themselves to the Lord to love the name of the Lord and hold fast his covenant,” these too are part of the community. Foreigners, not just the native Jews, will be “brought to God’s holy mountain.” Foreigners, not just the native Jews, will have their “sacrifices accepted” by God. Here in one of the later documents in the Old Testament, we see a Jewish concept developing that becomes even more central in our own Christian tradition: the call of God and the community of God is intended to be universal. What binds you as a believer to other believers is not whether they hail from your country or another country, whether you like them, whether their ethnicity is similar to yours, whether they are part of your social class. What binds God’s community together is that God called them into God’s community. We have no right to deny anybody access to God once God has called them. God’s house is for all peoples, not just us; for foreigners, not just natives.
Over my maybe 35 years as a Christian, I’ve heard that point made hundreds of times, and it seems as if it is increasingly necessary to keep making it, to say over and over that if we are living as disciples of Christ, the only position Scripture and tradition allow us to take is that God’s household is open to everyone. Like any community that is made of up human beings, churches sometimes struggle to act that way -- for all kinds of reasons, human sin and self-focus foremost among them. But it’s a basic teaching of Scripture.
However, another reason churches struggle to act that way is that we ourselves, we the "churched," are increasingly disconnected from such basic teachings of Scripture as anchoring realities shaping our own daily lives. For a large number of us, our own sense of being part of God’s household is relatively vague. A recent book I’ve had out from the Champaign library has brought that home to me in a fresh way, and reminded me that it’s no longer the case that we can assume we only need to remind people of Biblical teachings everyone already knows.
The book is called “My Jewish Year,” and it’s by Abigail Pogrebin, a writer in her early 50s and a former 60 Minutes producer. It started as a column chronicling her experience trying to discover how to actually practice the Jewish faith she had theoretically been raised in. She decided to do a sort of full-immersion year, the way one would learn a new language – because in essence, steady Jewish practice was a new language for her. She was a foreigner in her own tradition.
Like many people in the two post-Baby Boomer generations, she had some idea of what the concepts and structures were that her parents had rebelled against. She had kind of attended temple, kind of celebrated the major holy days if there wasn’t a conflict with a family trip or a sports event, although she says she would have failed any test on the Exodus story or the other key Jewish holy day narratives. She’d could kind of sing the chants and hymns, and her family dipped into what she describes as “Friday night sabbath candle lighting when convenient.” Even though she would have told a pollster she was Jewish, and she did Jewish stuff if it fit her schedule, Pogrebin got well into adulthood, like many people her age or younger, as essentially a foreigner in her own religion. And as her own kids hit their teen years, she saw how they also lacked any clear and reliable Jewish spiritual grounding and realized that was because she didn’t have one to give them. For a long time she brushed the questions off, but eventually the feeling that she’d been denied a really important part of life became too powerful to ignore.
Pogrebin looked around at other Jewish households who practiced their faith, where the kids and parents had a rootedness her household didn’t. Those families were in a definite minority, but they stuck out in our rootless and distracted world, and she realized what she was feeling was envy. “I’d watched,” she writes, “how observant families adhere to an annual system that organizes and anchors their lives. I envied not their certainty, but their literacy. I wanted to know what they knew…. Something tugged at me, telling me there was more to feel than I felt, more to understand than I knew. … Here was a blueprint [for life] thousands of years old staring me in the face, and I’d never tested it.”
And so she decided to test it. She spent one year actually living as what, on paper, she already was. 12 months observing every twist and turn of the liturgical calendar, praying important texts she’d never known existed, processing her experience with rabbis, reading commentaries, fasting every fast day and feasting every feast day, dancing when it was time to dance and repenting when it was time to repent. And you can see, as you read through the book, how Pogrebin is coming to terms with deep issues it had been all too easy to avoid when she skimmed the surface of the liturgy, as well as discovering sweetnesses she had never gotten to taste. Along the way she did an interview with the New Republic editor Leon Wieseltier, and she records a comment he made about how the widespread rebellion against major religious traditions and institutions that took place 50 years ago had left the next generations with nowhere to stand. “The problem,” he told her, “is that most American Jews make their decisions about their Jewish identity knowing nothing or next to nothing about the tradition they are accepting or rejecting.”
Does the point even need to be made that Leon Wieseltier could easily have said: Most American everything make their decisions about their spiritual identity that way, knowing nothing or next to nothing about the tradition they are accepting or rejecting. So many of us are de facto foreigners now. It’s often pointed out in the media that when pollsters ask Americans to name their spiritual tradition, these days about a quarter to a third answer “nothing,” and many of those who are able to identify some religious heritage, like Abigail Pogrebin, have never fully been natives of it, never known it well enough to practice it steadily. Many of us, I’ll wager, even those of us who are sitting in church right now, could discover any number of things by deciding we were going to write a book called “My Episcopal Year.” Imagine the depths you’d discover about the world and yourself if you spent one year observing every twist and turn of the liturgical calendar, praying important texts you’d never known existed, processing your experience with a priest, reading commentaries, fasting every fast day and feasting every feast day, dancing when it was time to dance and repenting when it was time to repent. Just doing the system the way it’s designed to be done. “My Episcopal Year” would be as good a book as “My Jewish Year,” I can guarantee you.
If your experience of church began after the great rebellion against institutions of the 60s and 70s, don’t be surprised if you hit a moment in your life when you have Pogrebin’s experience, when you say “I think I’ve wound up as a foreigner to some really important stuff, and I envy the people who speak the language. I see families who have this annual system that organizes and anchors their lives. I want to know what they know.” That’s a story I have heard over and over from people here at Emmanuel who are beginning to explore the Christian way of life as a substantive reality in their 30s or 40s or 50s. This is simply where we are now as a culture. If you want spiritual literacy, if you want the skills to experience life in its depth, you have to be intentional about it. It will absolutely not just happen. You have to choose to say yes to spiritual community, and you have to choose to say no to all the many habits of mind and behavior that are very effectively turning people into foreigners who have lost access to the real power of their own religious traditions. And for you parents, all those choices don’t just affect you alone, as I’m sure you know all too well.
If you were around when we had the conversation last year, you’ll remember that’s one reason Emmanuel saw the need to bring a second priest on board, to help reboot our ministry with parents and families to better engage with the way the world is now, to empower people to immigrate into their own tradition or discover the Christian way of life for the first time. I’m so glad that Fr. Caleb got together this last week with some of our households with young kids, and earlier with many of our young adults, to join them in doing the tough work of envisioning new ways to make this possible. Because it won’t just happen. We have to participate, at home, at work, with our kids, with our friends, in making it happen, and it will take all of us.
Fortunately, we’re not on our own. God has a much greater interest in seeing us get access to everything he has to offer us than we do, and he is remarkably persistent. As Isaiah says today, God is eager to embrace foreigners, and his house is for all peoples. And he wants everyone to be able to say what Abigail Pogrebin says at the end of her Jewish year, when she’s ceased to be an outsider in her own tradition. She uses the image of being at the eye doctor: he pulls that machine down over your eyes to find your prescription, and everything looks blurry as he says “which is better, one…?” -- and then he flips the switch and says “… or two?” and all the letters spring into focus. Option one, or two? Finally, she writes, for the first time in her life, she actually saw option two.
Option two is there; it's real. And you deserve access to it. Everybody does. And we’re all here, each and every one of us, to help each other see it.
The Rev. Beth Maynard