Matthew’s peculiar story about how Jesus
sorts out the sheep and goats assumes that it’s hard—
they separate themselves….
–David Slavitt, “All We Like Sheep”
“This poem’s about me, you know,” my poet friend told me. I had already read two drafts of his poem, a free-verse confession of his sexuality. The two men in the car outside Starbucks, watching the rain, holding hands. That’s my poet friend and his crush. I knew this of course. “I thought so.”
Four years before I had sat in the car with another girl at Starbucks, watching traffic and sipping iced coffee. “I’m gay,” she had confessed. My best friend—gay? “I don’t think so.”
I was already pen pals with God when I learned about the sinner’s prayer. By then, I considered it just a formality, something that would make sure God didn’t leave me swinging alone on the jungle gym or drive past me at the bus stop. I learned about this prayer at a concert, and again at church and camp, where I was taught that I was doomed to fiery h-e-double-hockey-sticks without Jesus. I prayed the prayer whenever I was invited to, just in case. The times I stayed up late to play church with my stuffed frog, singing the songs I learned in Sunday school—that time was too important to lose. I needed God to know I was serious, pen pals or not.
I grew up knowing my mom was different from me. Church framed this as a bad thing: only Christians go to heaven. Mom said this difference was good: “I am one of God’s chosen people.”
Evangelical teens with Jewish mothers don’t make good daughters. I shut myself in my room, talked to God and my pastor instead of her. Moralism, too, was high on my list: I told my mom I must go to church every week. I must not disobey my pastor. I must not have sex or drink wine (thanks for the sip, but I can’t). I was my family’s judge. I had thou shall not painted on my forehead.
The summer my poet friend came out to me as gay, my boyfriend came out to me as an atheist. That night, I blocked him from my phone and listened to moody music, praying I had heard him wrong, that “I’m not a Christian” meant something else. The next day I imagined the quiet world that would become mine, if we ever married and raised atheist children, if I had to go to church alone forever.
I’ve been going to church alone most of my life. The pastor’s invitation to take Communion with a family member always embarrassed me—my stepmother was not my family, not really. And my friends—my best friend was asked not to attend our church because of her sexuality. Others just stopped showing up. At new churches, I’m asked, “Who do you belong to?” No one here.
Someone’s coming out means my closing in.
Christianity lost its spark when it preached its exclusionary gospel to my friends. When my best friend came out to me in the Starbucks parking lot, and I had nothing to say to her, nothing to prove that she and I would remain best friends, remain in communion, I started wondering what good is the Church if it’s going to cut the ties binding girlfriends. In college, a pastor asked me to dream up my own church. This church, I wrote, will meet in a park to serve Communion to everyone—to the homeless, the unchurched, the Jews and the Muslims, the atheists and agnostics, and to the saints.
At my Christian college, I’d slip out of my dorm before nine a.m. on Sundays to go to Starbucks. I didn’t want my roommates to know I was skipping church. Sometimes I’d see my other classmates there, already halfway through their lattes, a quarter-way through their readings. I thought, this is my church. I remembered Emily Dickinson: “Some keep the Sabbath going to church.” I keep it drinking coffee.
In graduate school, I found Wits’ End Church when I was at my wit’s end. The night before, my boyfriend and I were up late arguing over belief. The fact that we agreed on so much seemed irrelevant: what mattered was what was different. I needed space, time to think, so I took the hour-long bus ride to a church I had heard about online. The pastor, Phil, read from Psalm 23, “The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want.” He said that when we’re with God, we can remain in our want and still be held by God.
During Advent one year, my boyfriend and I broke up for a season. He told me he wasn’t sure what he wanted or who he was anymore and that this would just be easier. Starting over.
I moved through that time numbly, feeling nothing, and then suddenly feeling everything. I thought maybe this is what it’s like to be without God. I thought, maybe I should pray the sinner’s prayer again.
Over coffee, Phil and I talk about membership. After a year, the Christian world tells us, it’s time to commit, get engaged. I tell him OK, but I know I haven’t thought this through: “The last time I joined a church, it was my stepmom’s decision, not mine. I was called to the front, blindsided by the pastor and his mic.”
“What are you afraid of?” Phil asks.
“To be known,” I answer, not sure if I’m lying, “or to remain unknown.”
I once came wild and reckless into my youth pastor’s office: “We’re not going to camp this year?” He told me some things had happened last year, some things he couldn’t talk to me about. My friends thought the worst: maybe counselors snuck out of the cabins for sex. Already cynical, I thought maybe my youth pastor was jealous we would spend time with other pastors.
I kept asking why, drying my slippery hands on my jeans. “That’s my camp, not your camp. I was baptized there.”
“You just have to trust me.”
The fire that rages in a fourteen-year-old’s heart wouldn’t let it go. My mouth, then, couldn’t form the words, not without fear of reproof, from my youth pastor, myself, or God. But my heart knew exactly what to say: Oh, fuck you.
Phil asks me how my boyfriend feels about my joining a church again. The answer should be that he is scared witless that I will become like the pentecostal aunts and evangelical fathers. “How is it?” Phil asks, meaning loving a goat when you’re a sheep, an outsider when you’re inside?
“Sometimes I wonder why I’m even a Christian.”
In Matthew’s gospel, Jesus sits before his best friends and his enemy; he takes bread, blesses it, and breaks it. “Take, eat; this is my body.” He takes a cup of wine, gives thanks, and says, “Drink of it, for this is the blood of the convenant, poured out for all.”
As a child, after hearing Paul’s warning about taking the elements in vain, I used Communion to confess every sin I committed that week, and for even now feeling cut off and distracted. Once again I needed God to know I was serious.
As I got older, I started to find in Communion just that—communion, intimacy with God and a space to grieve intimacy lost between my best friend and me, my mom and me, my boyfriend and the Christian God.
When Phil welcomes us to the altar and says, “Come, the table is ready,” he offers the bread and the wine to all, the way Christ offered His body for all. He offers it to the best friends and pen pals, to the Judases and Thomases, the sheep and the goats.
At Advent, Wits’ End flips the altar on its head. It’s no longer a table, but with its wooden legs in the air, a manger. Instead of Christ inviting us to His table, we invite Christ to His cradle. Be with us. Stay with us. Phil asks me to read poetry through Advent, in place of Communion. Take, eat—hear, listen—I whisper to the congregants, many of whom still don’t know my name, this poem is me.