I sometimes refer to my Palm Spring tribe of Christians — those truly amazing people who actually strive to live the Biblical teachings of Christ — as “my Christians.” It’s in the same tongue-in-cheek way that Kathy Griffin calls her gay friends and fans “my gays.” The important thing to know is that these loving people do self-identify as Christian and, when I use the term in regards to them, I mean only the best of Christianity. Because that is what these beautiful believers are in my opinion.
Here’s an overview of some of my friends I presently call “my Christians.” Don’t tell me God doesn’t have a sense of irony. All but one, a retired Methodist minister, would be considered evangelicals. Yeah. Me. And evangelicals.
Mark and Liz
Let’s start with Mark, a lawyer who teaches the Bible Study I attend twice a week. (That’s Mark in the photo above with his arm over my shoulder.) Liz, Mark’s wife and coconspirator in spreading the Word, feeds the crowd every Wednesday night at her restaurant, FARM — on the historic Le Plaza in downtown Palm Springs. At 6:00 pm the food comes out and by 7:15, we’re settling into Mark’s lesson. Because of the free food, and it’s really good and healthy food, we get a number of homeless visitors who, parking their grocery carts along the restaurant’s picket fence, come to eat. Still, about half stay for the lesson. Occasionally, there’s someone with obvious mental health issues who may, for example, leave abruptly during Mark’s lesson, mumbling profanities into the air. Mark and Liz don’t bat an eye. There’s certainly no requirement to stay for the Bible lesson. Just come eat and fellowship. (This always reminds me of Ram Dass’ Guru, Neem Karoli Baba, who said: “For the starving, God comes in the form of food.”)
Mark and Liz are the two people who are most responsible for my return to God. It was their open-hearted kindness and — I can’t explain this, it’s something you have to experience — this feeling of God while in their presence that woke me up. Around two years ago, when I first came to the Bible Study, you could call me a moderately miserable agnostic. Some days, atheist. The truth? The real reason I came to the Bible Study in the first place — I’ve never told Mark or Liz this — was that I wanted to see their house, one of Palm Spring’s midcentury architectural masterpieces. It’s a hell of a house, furnished exquisitely — a middle-aged gay man’s wet dream. And it didn’t take me long to realize that in that house there was something extraordinarily special that had nothing to do with architecture or the fabulous midcentury furniture. Yes, sir. Here was the light. Here was love. Here was God. And it all went by the names Mark and Liz.
I would not be telling the whole story if I didn’t mention my third major influence, a former Lutheran Pastor who today directs an outreach nonprofit organization — Live 180 — for seekers who feel marginalized by the mainstream churches. Pastor Dave’s mission is to bring the Word to anyone who has ever felt “labeled” as less worthy by the church. He also serves on a committee with me to establish a needle exchange to address the epidemic of Hep C in Palm Springs IV drug community. And, he wouldn’t want me to tell you this, but it’s my blog (lol), so here goes. I have a friend, a recovered meth addict like myself, who told me that, at the worst of his addiction, when he was living homeless on the streets of Palm Springs, Pastor Dave gave him a key to the church’s outdoor accessible bathroom so he could wash and get out of the cold at night. (It wasn’t surprising to me when the conservative board of their church did not renew David’s tenure. Their loss. Our gain.) And did I mention Mark, Liz and David are evangelicals?
I soon learned the difference between evangelicals and fundamentalists. Before my personal experience with these evangelist Christians, I lumped the two into one and the same. All evangelicals were fundamentalist. All fundamentalists were evangelical. Same thing.
Not at all.
The evangelicals evangelize, they share the gospel and — in the case of my friends — show through example a life available in Jesus. Evangelicals exist in almost every Christian tradition. Baptist. Methodist. Lutheran. Orthodox. Even Catholic. As far as I can tell the reasons they are so often confused with fundamentalists is because our most famous fundamentalists have also been evangelicals — think Jerry Falwell, Pat Robertson, and Ted Haggard, the infamous mega-church pastor from Denver who was caught having meth-fueled sex weekends with male prostitutes.
Pastor Dave and I try to meet privately once a week to challenge each other and ourselves to grow and learn with the purpose of becoming better followers of Christ. In fact, of my Palm Springs Christians, I’m sure most consider themselves to be evangelicals. Not that they don’t also hold to certain fundamentalist beliefs, as well — Biblical inerrancy, for example. Still, my Christians all lack that one universal requirement for fundamentalism: a closed mind with an unquestioned certainty about who is and is not going to Hell. My Christians don’t judge because they don’t label people — other than the label “child of God.” You’re a child of God, period.
Now, as I spend more and more time with my Christians, I’m finding a way to lovingly question any fundamentalist thought I encounter. I do this in a manner that I hope might make them — if not adopt a more progressive theology — at least hear me out with a mind open to the possibility of change. It’s not so farfetched if God wants them to change, right? But there is a catch: I have to come to the table with that very same openness of mind myself. What this means is, though I find it very doubtful, I cannot 100% exclude the possibility that, say, I could one day come to adopt for myself the young earth belief they hold. (The young earth belief is a literalist interpretation of Genesis, which, according to its family tree beginning with Adam and Eve, means the earth can only be around 6,000 years old. To the fundamentalist mind, believing anything else denies the Bible’s authority.)
An open mind is the key — for all concerned.
Oddly, there’s no particular church or denomination with which my Christians identify. Well, not oddly. It’s actually one of the many reasons I love and admire them. The organized church thing just became so deadening to their real spirit that they had to do what Jesus did — leave the organized church. So instead of church on Sunday mornings, I attend a small Bible study at Mark and Liz’s home — just like it was done back in the day when Jesus walked the planet.
The fourth Christian friend of mine is a retired Methodist minister. Nan is 86 years young and a personal hero. She lives about 45 min west on I-10 in Redlands. As I’m writing this, I’m realizing I don’t see her as often as I would like. I need to change that soon. She’s my Christian radical, a leader in the Methodist church when it came to opening the ministry to women. I’m going to hold off on writing an longer introduction to her now. I will give her an entire post soon. Let’s just suffice it to say that when I was first introduced to Nan at a book signing in Los Angeles, I wrote in my book that she was a “fellow soul traveler” that I recognized I’ve known before and our meeting was inspired by God. The moment I looked into her kind, beautiful face I knew she was going to play some important part in my life. Who knew that in less than a year, I’d move to Palm Springs, practically her neighbor.
There are others, but these four — Mark, Liz, David, and Nan — are the major co-stars in my journey to truly know Jesus.
As for Christian friends of mine from my past, they include: a married Catholic priest (that got your attention, didn’t it?); a former nun from Mother Teresa’s order; an openly gay Episcopal chaplain; and Scotty Peck, who wrote The Road Less Traveled. So it’s not like I haven’t known some amazing people who identified as Christians. I have. I’m just not one of them.
So what’s all this about a “married” Catholic priest? (You were still thinking about that, right? I wouldn’t be able to let it go.) Let me explain. At the time, in the late 1990s, my friend described himself as one of eight married Catholic priests in the world. And just how does a married Catholic priest come about? All eight came to be in the same manner: they were married Episcopal or Anglican priests who converted to catholicism and, so, brought their wives along with them. He said there was some sacrament (or something) he wasn’t allowed to do, but other than that one thing, he was a full-blown priest with all the duties and privileges. I even met his wife, who was amazing in her own right. But, of course, she would be.
Am I beginning to sound like that white guy who rattles off the names of all his black friends and acquaintances to prove how he’s not racist?
If you honestly consider it, are you really surprised that some of us never cotton to the name “Christian” — really? As far as I can tell, Jesus never said anything remotely close to “Go forth and call yourselves Christians!” So, I’m not — going forth, that is, calling myself Christian. What I can truthfully say is:
I do my best to practice the teachings of Jesus Christ as I continue to understand them.
That’s enough to seriously join in Jesus 2.0. Come on, he could care less about what I call myself. I’m pretty sure of that.