I went into the ministry looking for God. It wasn’t until I started working with a Catholic priest doing work with AIDS patients that I really understood God. I was in my first ministry in South Bend, IN. A Catholic town in the shadow of the University of Notre Dame. I had largely written off the Christian concept of God. For much of my early adult life I believed that Christianity was mistaken in its insistence that we are all fallen and that only by believing in the saving power of Jesus Christ can we be saved. This redemptive theology struck me as self-serving at best; of course they would say that, I thought, it ensures more followers through no fault other than being human. It wasn’t until I worked closely with a Franciscan monk who was tending to the spiritual needs of AIDS patients in the early 1990’s that I realized I might be wrong. Brother Mike (I will call him) spent his days hearing the confessions and laying on hands of healing to those in the final days of their lives. This was in the early days of the epidemic when little was known about the causes and treatment of AIDS/HIV. The cultural condemnation of AIDS patients was based on the mistaken assumption that these gay men were being punished by God for the sins of sexual deviance. The fear was palatable and to minister to these men was considered risky. I was working with Brother Mike as part of my outreach as a new minister.
As we went from bed to bed, I would listen as Mike heard their confessions. Most of those confessions were heart wrenching. Some of these men told of sleeping with scores of other men. Some told of using dirty needles for their drug addiction. Some were monogamous and clean but their partners were not. Brother Mike offered no judgment. He heard their confession and he held their hands and he forgave them their sins, intentional or otherwise, that is such a part of human nature. As he did this, I watched waves of relief roll over these tortured men. I realized they were sacrificing their pride in confessing. I realized Mike was sacrificing his judgment and maybe his welfare in this ministry. I realized that together each was sacrificing the illusion of control before the inexorable march of fate, life and death. Sacrifice is part of our human religious project. There is power in letting go. There was power for me.
Suddenly, I saw in those men and in Brother Mike the suffering of humanity that we need to let go into the hands of God. I was freed from the illusion that Christianity was all a sham; I saw how a personal savior can actually save a life. I haven’t become a Christian but I understand the power of Christianity. I was willing to give up my antagonism for a new found respect. Not agreement but respect. By giving up my condemnation of Christianity, a condemnation that supported my liberal theology, I was adding to my faith in pluralistic theology that includes the redemptive impulse of Christianity. And it was here that I found my God: the force of love in our lives that becomes manifest in the hand of ours that serves. I have come to the conclusion that we are then the hands of God.
With Grace and Grit, John