I picked up a book.
It wasn’t the first time I’ve stumbled upon a book that somehow shifted everything, but it is the most recent.
I’d enjoyed reading Anne Lamott and Kathleen Norris for years, and somewhere came across a reference to a small “genre” of authors – liberal-literary-women-who-convert-to-Christianity-unexpectedly – that included the name of Sara Miles alongside theirs. So I picked up her memoir, Take This Bread, at the library, and as I read it, something shifted.
I couldn’t articulate it any better at the time – this book was changing things for me, but I couldn’t tell you what or how.
Sara was raised by two atheist Christian missionary kids in a home so staunchly secular that all she knew about Jesus was that he was a good man who some people thought was God.
After an amazing journey in its own right (read the book!), she finds herself passing an interesting church building on a walk in her San Francisco neighborhood and impulsively decides to go inside.
A service is in progress, and as bread is passed, it comes to her and she puts a piece in her mouth. She says she immediately knew three things: there is a God, his name is Jesus, and he was in her mouth. And no amount of sleeping on it or trying to argue herself out of it could change that knowledge.
It changed her life, ultimately leading her to a ministry of feeding the poor, both physically and spiritually.
It’s a stunningly powerful conversion story, with years of subsequent fruitfulness.
And I had to decide what to do with it, because Sara has a wife.
What do we do when we encounter God coloring outside the lines we believe God drew?
I didn’t know what to do with it all intellectually or theologically at the time, but I could not – would not – deny the fruit of the Spirit I could see so clearly evidenced in Sara’s life.
It led me on a journey of questions, and ultimately into a community of LGBTQ friends in whose lives I saw the Holy Spirit at work first hand. The depth of their faith in the face of often deeply difficult circumstances humbled me. Many have had to face incredibly painful words and actions from Christian family and churches, and yet they still follow Jesus. Their faith is hard won and deep.
I eventually came to realize that the challenge of God coloring outside the lines was not new to me.
In the earliest years of the church, one of the most prominent Jesus followers had a dream.
His name was Peter, and in his dream he saw a huge sheet being lowered down from heaven with all kinds of animals in it. A voice told him, “Kill and eat!”
But Peter was a Jew, and these were animals no Jew would eat – they’d been commanded not to eat them centuries before, and following those commands were a deep part of Jewish identity. So Peter protested, as any faithful Jew would, that of course he would have nothing to do with these “unclean” animals.
Maybe Peter thought the dream was a test of his faithfulness. If so, he got a surprise.
Instead of commending him on his knowledge of the scriptures and upright living, the voice replied, “Do not call unclean what I have made clean.” (The story may be found in Acts 10:9 – 11:18.)
I’m happy to use this story to bless my bacon-wrapped shrimp, but there’s far more going on here.
Peter is about to encounter some unclean, unacceptable Gentiles whom the Holy Spirit is going to descend upon just as he has the Jewish followers of Jesus. God is getting ready to color outside the lines Peter thought God drew, and Peter is going to have to decide what to do with that.
What defines the work of God in the world? In people? Is it the rules previously given? Is it rules at all? Can Peter allow his holiest categories to be shattered?
He gets the message – “Don’t call unacceptable those whom I have accepted.”
I got the message, and it blew my world wide open.