“So you’re a preacher” he said. It was late about 9:30 in Chicago and it was cold, the January wind tearing at my jacket. I was standing on a train platform waiting for my two hour commute back to northern Indiana where I lived. I told him that I was a seminary student and yes, I was a “preacher”. “How about that” he said, “a man of God.” I didn’t have the heart to clarify just what kind of God he thought I might be a man of. But then again, it didn’t matter. “Just great, just great” he said, “I’ve always admired a man of the cloth”. He continued, “Just found Jesus myself” he said. I shifted, not sure if my discomfort was with the wind or where this conversation was going. My new found friend went on in great detail: he was a bricklayer, he was on this third wife, he had six children and was finally in AA. As he explained his conversion I couldn’t help but notice the sound of contentment in his voice, it was almost contagious. That was a difficult year for me: I was struggling over my new identity, with the death of a close friend and with this expansive faith of ours which required such a broad knowledge. I yearned, I admit, for a simple faith, perhaps the comfort of Jesus.
As we boarded the train together, he naturally sat down right next to me He pulled out a well-worn copy of the bible and recited his favorite passage from the Gospel of John, “No one shall come onto the father but through me.” I knew that for him this meant that he was already in the arms of a loving God. That in the end, with all his troubles, he would be all right. I have come in the many years since this encounter to feel and know what it is about a simple faith in Jesus that is so refreshing and comforting: If you believe you are saved than there is nothing this world can do to you to hurt you more than for a moment. This kind of faith is not about reason, it’s about feelings. Many of us don’t understand this allure.
But this man understood. He was quite sure of his own salvation. And equally worried about his sister’s soul. She was a Muslim. “What about you, Reverend? What church do you belong to?” he asked. “I’m a Unitarian Universalist” I replied, trying to let the 10 syllables fall out of my mouth slowly. He was quiet for a moment trying to recall where he had heard that before. Then the gleam of recognition, “Oh yeah, I got a friend who is into the Unity stuff – real spiritual.” Alas, we fall again to the arrows of misrecognition. I started to explain the difference, but his stop had arrived and he thanked me and got off.
Perhaps just as well. I would rather have him leave with that warmth. Many days have passed since that cold night. Many more sermons, deaths, births and doubts and I am still before you, a humble servant of the spirit, searching as you are for that faith which will sustain us; the faith of a community like ours with so many different beliefs. A faith that out of our many paths we will find one faith, one theology, a meaning to which we are that draws us together in more than just a freedom to believe. Because my friends the freedom to believe is not an end, but a means to an end, still and always in process before us. We come here out of many branching streams to find ourselves in the current of this beloved community bound by covenant to one another.
With Grace and Grit, John