Twenty minutes after our agreed upon meeting time, my best friend Andrea rushed into the coffee shop smiling and apologetic. The devil on my left shoulder won the wrestling match taking place in my conscience and I said, “I don’t think Jesus would have been late.” My tone was not joyfully sarcastic, but biting — with a clenched-teeth smile like a ventriloquist’s dummy.
It was unusual coming from me. Generally, I’m pretty maternal when it comes to my friends. (I spent the weeks before Christmas knitting hats and scarves in pink and purple while listening to hours of relationship complaints. In my Palm Pilot are individual birthday notices accompanied by a list of appropriate gifts.) But when Andrea became part of an on-campus Christian ministry, I became icy.
At first, I wasn’t cynical, because I knew she was searching for something, anything. A roommate saw her crying after she was fired from a dead-end waitress job and convinced her to turn to a prayer group. Soon after that, every week there was another enlightening Bible verse or quote that she had to call me about. What she described to me was smiling people who gave her quotes of encouragement and wisdom, which she would repeat back to me in email, text message or Facebook post.
After three weeks, I was bored with the constant philosophizing and wanted to have at least one drink at the end of the week without Jesus being brought up. Talks that should have been dialogues were monologues. Not that there was much for me to add, though; how could my gripes about a bad hair day compare to the topic of “Our Savior?”
First, Andrea’s Friday nights were busy. Next, her Saturday nights became shorter, because her Sunday mornings were dedicated to the Lord. Finally, she went on a three-week trip with other parishioners to California — a state I have wanted to visit since Baywatch was still on television.
The night before our intended meeting at the coffee shop, during her bus ride back from Los Angeles to New York City, I told Andrea I wanted to hear about her amazing trip to America’s warmer coast. I hadn’t spoken to her face to face outside of a group setting in two months, so I was actually excited about meeting up with her. But as the minutes ticked away while I waited for her the next night, I got angrier with Andrea and with Jesus Christ.
It’s not about faith, it’s about groups
Don’t get me wrong; atheism is not for me. I believe in God and all that jazz, but actively pursuing the meaning behind Crucifixion, Transubstantiation and the Eucharist reminds me of school assignments. I was raised Roman Catholic and went to parochial schools from a very young age until college, so I never had to search for a church. I was taught every necessary topic, within the walls of a church — sometimes by actual nuns and priests. Without my parents and teachers traveling beside me, church became less and less a priority in my life, unlike Andrea’s experience in the Christian group. My annoyance was festering because she would not stop discussing her conversion experience, which forced me at least to acknowledge my own spirituality.
The situation reminded me of another time in college when two close female friends had pledged a sorority. I was supportive of them the entire time, even though I declined invitations to join myself. I believe in Jesus — I even believe in sororities — but must I really be a part of a massive umbrella of an organization to be happy? Must everyone be on a spiritual journey so loudly that others question their own direction? Or have I been so insistent on being indefinable, radical or in a class of my own, that I can’t enjoy association with anything, let alone a church group?
After my Jesus comment in the coffee shop Andrea apologized to me, because that is the kind of Christian she is — martyring herself before a jealous friend at the slightest provocation. I apologized too, and asked how the ministry meeting went. Andrea told me that they all read a parable about mustard seeds together because a couple she knows had their second child. I struggled not to laugh at what felt like an overly cutesy religious moment.
The angel on my right shoulder got his second wind however and I asked Andrea if she would like me to go to one of her ministry meetings one day. Her smile widened — if that was possible — with an emphatic, “Yes, I would love for you to come.” Anxious to seize the self-invite I had just given her, she pulled out a Blackberry and “booked” me for her next Sunday morning. I was beginning to regret this; I love sleeping in on the weekends.
The better angel’s turn
That Sunday morning I was the one who was late and carrying a grumpy mood. We went to a study room on the local college campus where kids sang and clapped for 45 minutes out of the hour, and read lyrics and Bible verses from a projector. I felt like a wildlife observer trying to see what they would all do next and how it was different from what I am used to:
No prayer booklets with Renaissance depictions on the front. No priest with vestments. The homily was more of a speech by a man in a suit (with no apparent affiliation) recounting his experience with cancer treatments.
It was inspiring to hear how prayer had helped him through the toughest part of his chemo treatment but I found myself shuffling in my folding chair over the informality of the service. Where was the incense? I was uncomfortable but it wasn’t a bad experience.
Afterwards, Andrea and I discussed my impressions of the meeting. For once, I wasn’t icy but lukewarm while I explained that I felt like something was missing. There was no physical symbolism. My idea of religion included being engulfed by a tall wood and stone structure and staring at scenes in windows made out of colored glass that were often too far up to touch.
When I was small — and even now — God was massive. So massive that, how could God not see the respect I give the people in my life without a reminder every Sunday? I explained. Being a good and happy person doesn’t require much more than a conscience, but some people, like Andrea, need a little more.
We haven’t gone to any more religious meetings together but Andrea and I now understand each other better on a deeper spiritual level. Best friends don’t always get that kind of connection. As Andrea would say “Thanks, Jesus.”