(Continued from here.)
A few weeks ago at the gym I was listening to a podcast of Speaking of Faith, one of my favorite NPR programs. The topic was "The New Evangelical Leaders," featuring a conversation with Rev. Jim Wallis, founder of Sojourners, a magazine with the tagline "Christians for Justice and Peace." My first instinct, for which I hated myself, was to fast-forward. Even though I am a passionate member of a synagogue that meets in a church and devotes much of its spiritual energy to interfaith understanding, even though I believe in doing so with all my heart, the phrase "Evangelical" still make me nervous. The remnants of my childhood biases are like the kind of cholesterol that diet and exercise can't cure, as in these ads showing fatty foods on one side of the page, and your fat uncle on the other. Sometimes I think I need the help of a Lipitor of tolerance. (And it should work on my own religion, too; at times I am also suspect of the motives and sanity of certain flavors of right-wing Jews.)
I didn't fast-forward. I listened, at first, out of guilt, but was soon hooked--Rev. Wallis spoke about social justice, his early work in poor Southern neighborhoods, the need to partner across racial and religious lines, and sounded very much like my own rabbis. Then, just as I was beginning to break a sweat on the treadmill, the topic turned to Catholicism and I suddenly thought about my old friend C., and a phone call we had when we were about ten and had run out of gossip about our friends.
"I bet you're wondering why you sometimes can't hear me when I say 'Jesus,'" she said.
"Um, I never noticed, " I answered. A big topic at St. Mary's, His name did come up occasionally during our conversations.
"Well, it's because I have to bow my head whenever I say it," she explained. "In case you were wondering."
Thereafter I noted C.'s muffled voice, as if she was addressing the little cross pinned to the inside of her undershirt. I thought it was cool. Her bowed head seemed comparable to my kissing the siddur when I closed it, an act of straightforward sincerity that felt right even years later during my most disillusioned moments. Kissing a siddur was always like a band-Aid for my spiritual wounds and brought me right back to the age of ten, when acknowledging God 's presence was easier and could be expressed by one simple gesture. I heard in Rev. Wallis that same pure honesty of words and convictions, a goodness that seemed closer to what I understood as a child, uncomplicated, free of anger and politics. He reminded me why I love the way my own synagogue prods me to go beyond my comfort zone, challenge my own narrowness, and become a better person. And how, in the ecstatic music of our prayer, in our feet and hands as we march for justice or work in soup kitchens, we step back from words and doubt and return to the directness of action, where God is always apparent.