I was raised Unitarian Universalist in Oklahoma. In theory, UU is a religion in which you can “build your own theology” and believe basically anything that works for you. In practice, Unitarians living surrounded by evangelical Christians (or rebelling against Catholic or Jewish childhoods) tend to be outspoken in their criticism of certain beliefs, so it always seemed to me that the UU-approved theological toolkit contained a limited set of parts.
Apparently some UU congregations celebrate Communion, but the ones we attended were not among them. I grew up hearing snarky comments about this blood-drinking ceremony, and I didn’t understand it at all until I heard Jesus Christ Superstar for the first time when I was twelve.
Jesus appealed to me very much. I wished I could have known this man who had God’s love and kindness pouring through him and wanted to teach us all how to be like that, too. I was sad that he’d been murdered because of it. But Jesus was just one of many historical figures who’d tried to make the world a better place. I wasn’t supposed to believe that he was God. The word “Unitarian” specifically signifies a belief that God is just one thing, not a trinity.
My ninth-grade Sunday school curriculum was “A free and responsible search for truth and meaning,” in which we learned about various religions and what they believe and why it’s dumb. That last part wasn’t official, but it came across in our teacher’s attitude when we visited houses of worship and in my classmates’ comments. The idea of the class was that we’d learn about all the beliefs and in the process discover which ones are truthful and meaningful to each of us–but it felt to me like we were being taught that faith is silly and we’re superior to the believers.
Meanwhile, ninth grade was just about the worst year of my life. Two of my grandparents were terminally ill and both died during that year; school was dreadful in so many ways; I was being bullied so much that I was afraid to ride the school bus, but while walking home I was catcalled from passing cars; my mother was traveling a lot for her work, so I had lots of responsibility at home; my friends were caught up in activities involving their special talents that I didn’t have (violin, swimming, ballet, flirting) and hardly had time for me.
I needed truth and meaning. I needed love and kindness. I was angry at the Unitarians for acting like I shouldn’t need anything from God, like the most important thing about religion is to avoid saying any of it is true. I kept thinking about the Catholic church I hadn’t stepped into since first grade (in Catholic school for academic reasons), about the feeling of something powerful and real in there–but I knew that Catholics believed things about sexuality and women’s roles that I could not accept.
Eventually I remembered one of my mom’s friends saying she was an Episcopalian and, when I asked what that was, replying, “It’s like Catholic but with birth control and women priests.” I looked up Episcopal in the encyclopedia and liked what I learned. On a Sunday when we weren’t going to the UU church, I asked my dad to drive me to our local Episcopal church.
Walking into that building for the first time, I had the strangest feeling, like crashing a dinner party only to find a place at the table set for me. I was greeted by a nice lady who gave me a whole packet of information about The Episcopal Church that answered all my intellectual questions, but equally important was the feeling that Someone larger wanted me there and had been expecting me.
Reading The Nicene Creed from the Book of Common Prayer along with the congregation, I thought, “Yes! Tell me what you believe so I can figure out if I believe it too!” I loved the very idea of the Book of Common Prayer, an agreed-upon collection of useful words for every occasion–not that anybody was saying these were the only words God would heed; it’s just that people had collected some of the effective ways to talk to God, so that we don’t each have to figure it out alone.
Episcopal liturgy is an elegant routine for drawing our attention to God. My skeptically-trained mind saw how the lighting, music, words, processions, and gestures were designed to play up the importance of God–and I felt how well it worked for me.
But when it was time for Communion, I didn’t go up to the altar rail. Because that wasn’t for me. I wasn’t a member of the church. It would be against the rules. It would be asking too much. I still felt that way after learning that Episcopal churches welcome any baptized Christian to receive Communion–because I wasn’t really a Christian, you know? I wasn’t sure if I could get my head around all that eternally begotten of the Father and incarnate from the Virgin Mary stuff.
I continued feeling that way for about two years, attending Episcopal services more and more often. But then I started to hear the telephone ringing.
I don’t mean that I literally heard anything. I’d be kneeling in church, letting the Eucharistic prayers wash over me, feeling grateful for Jesus who knew that humankind was going to treat him horribly but sat down for one last supper with his friends and said, “When you eat and drink together, remember me,” thinking what a simple yet profound message that is and how it shows such a loving understanding of human nature–and I would feel the phone ringing or something like that, a sudden signal that somebody was calling me and I should drop everything to pick it up.
It took months for me to get up the courage to do that. I was so sure that I was just being silly. By this time I had gotten used to the idea of praying, both in church and at home, so I prayed for guidance. The ringing only got louder.
Finally one day I went up to the altar rail. I was shaking with fear that someone would recognize that I had no business doing this and would send me back to my seat. But that’s not what happened. Everyone accepted that I belonged there. I put my hands up like they did and received the bread and wine, and I remembered Jesus. There was no dramatic thunderclap, more like a gentle realization that Jesus is not just a book character, not just a historical hero, but someone real that I remember.
A few weeks later, I heard the (then newly released) Depeche Mode song “Personal Jesus.” Yes, I’m aware that the song is “really” an allegory for something quite different and not about Jesus at all, but whatever–the lyrics, interpreted more literally, expressed my experience. (I’m surprised to see that the online lyrics say “lift up the receiver” instead of “pick up the receiver” which is what I remember–I’m going to leave the title of this article the way it is.) For me, the song is about daring to pick up the phone, to receive the call, to reach out and touch faith.
I’ve considered myself an Episcopalian ever since and eventually made it official by being confirmed. A priest once told me that the reason our church doesn’t require a class or ceremony for a person to prepare to receive Communion is that we don’t believe you have to understand all about Communion before you can partake; it is a holy mystery. Every year, I learn more.
I’m still UU enough that I have to say, Communion might not be your thing, Jesus might not be your path to God, and that’s okay with me. What matters most is that you find your path and don’t just wander around thinking you don’t deserve anything. If you hear the phone ringing, pick it up! It’s for you! Take that call and find the spiritual practice that brings you closer to God, that leads you to the place at the table with your name on it.
I’m writing this on the first day of Lent, so I’ll nudge you toward the general concept of a 40-day free trial. If you’re feeling skeptical but kind of wish you believed, take this opportunity to act like you believe for 40 days. Try that religious practice that seems like it might mean something. Listen, open your mind, and be ready to let the love and kindness pour through. Reach out and touch faith!
3 thoughts on “Pick Up the Receiver”
Lovely. Will you be able to read this from the pulpit? I still think you should think about divinity school! Or at least write more about faith. “In your spare time,” of course! With admiration, Elsa
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Thanks! I enjoy writing this kind of thing once in a while, but I think I’d find it difficult to come up with a sermon every week! I’m always impressed with priests who make it through all the extra services of Lent and Easter without just recycling the same thoughts from last year.
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