I keep this photograph saved on my phone. It was taken the day my parents brought me home from the hospital to our little ranch-style house in the country. I have no idea who made the bubble-letter banner; their Ns need some work, but I appreciate the sentiment.
I keep this photo handy because I like knowing I was—I am—welcome in this world. I was—I am—wanted. I was—I am—invited.
I had cause to reexamine my route through this life recently when a friend invited me to the GCN Conference in Denver in January, an invitation I'm seriously considering despite the fact that the closest I've come to a gathering of Christians is almost getting run over by a car coming out of a church parking lot during a Sunday morning half-marathon training run a couple years back. But the invitation got me thinking of this quirky little community where I started my writing career—such as it was—in 2002, and though I'm deeply relieved none of that writing still exists online anywhere, I went back and read through a bunch of it. I stayed up far, far too late one night reading almost everything I'd published back then—I never was paid a dime, but I loved the work—and trying not to be too hard on myself for how incredibly derivative and messy the writing and I both were. But it felt like opening up a house that had been closed up for too long. I opened windows, took plastic off the furniture, pulled back the shades, and let some light in.
Store All The Things
I once wrote weekly about faith, spirituality, and the places in my every day, post-college life where those things intersected. Nowadays, when people ask—which they rarely do—I tell them my religion is basically that episode of The Simpsons where Homer stays home from church:
And it's more or less true. I haven't been a part of a faith community in a decade. Not counting my therapist, it's been even longer than that since I've prayed out loud with another human being while sober. Once, a coworker looked at me while I was making the morning coffee and said, "Nathan, it seems like you have Jesus in your heart; can you tell us about that?"
I thought of a moment in the fall of 2002. I'd just moved to Connecticut with my boyfriend to start divinity school, and we'd befriended a nice, cute, Jesusy gay guy named Ray. One night, we'd driven out to New London to see Sophie B. Hawkins perform on a beach, and on the drive back, the subject of faith came up.
"What have been some of the experiences that've shaped your faith?" I asked our new friend.
From the driver's seat, Ray looked askance at me. There was a long pause, and then he said, "Mary stored all these things up in her heart."
The verse he loosely quoted was from the second chapter of Luke, part of which you may know from A Charlie Brown Christmas:
In that region there were shepherds living in the fields, keeping watch over their flock by night. Then an angel of the Lord stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid; for see—I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord. This will be a sign for you: you will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger.” And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host, praising God and saying,
“Glory to God in the highest heaven,
and on earth peace among those whom he favors!”
When the angels had left them and gone into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, “Let us go now to Bethlehem and see this thing that has taken place, which the Lord has made known to us.” So they went with haste and found Mary and Joseph, and the child lying in the manger. When they saw this, they made known what had been told them about this child; and all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds told them. But Mary treasured all these words and pondered them in her heart. The shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen, as it had been told them.
I love that. Mary didn't go all hashtag-blessed, running around crowing about this amazing thing God had done for and through her. Her reaction was one of humility, and in modeling it, my new friend Ray gave me something to ponder. That moment has remained with me for more than fifteen years, and it, almost as much as any other, has shaped how I frame matters of spirituality. The older I get, the more precious that moment becomes. "Mary stored all these things up in her heart," and increasingly, so do I.
It's not that I think conversations about faith are bad or wrong. I recently had one with a dear friend that lasted for five hours. But when my coworker asked me to talk about having Jesus in my heart, I found I had little to say. I kinda figure if you don't see it in the way I treat you—and too few people in my life, I fear, do—then nothing I'm going to say is going to mean a thing. And if, by some miracle having nothing whatsoever to do with me, you do see it, then I've nothing left to say.
Let's Talk About Faith, Bay-Bee
But then I turned around and read my old writing, the little missives I'd written about small answered prayers, overflowing toilets, crappy apartments, family fights, mean cats, miscarriages, dating disasters, and tiny motes of light that somehow got in around all the darkness. I've long thought of my early twenties as the most rotten, wretched time of my life, and in many ways, that is true. But I'd forgotten that there were these little sacraments: friends, family, autumn walks with the music in my ears, laughter, grace, road trips, karaoke.
I always say the holiest sentence is, "I don't know." It, more than any other phrase, leaves us open to new things and beats back the darkness of fearful, feverish certainty. I don't know how I survived my early twenties. I don't know what happens when we die. I don't know how to make anything about Roy Moore make sense to my stubborn little heart that refuses to process hypocrisy or spiritual violence.
So it's hard to write about faith any more, because the longer I live, the less I feel I know. And there's so much freedom in that. But it also makes it hard to accept an invitation to a gathering of believers, because my answers to every question are either, "I don't know" or "Mary stored all these things up in her heart."
I think the only response to that for most people is, "This cafeteria table's full. You can't sit with us."
Oddly enough, I'm okay with that too. Because one of the little things stored up in my heart is this: I'm invited. I'm wanted. I'm welcome here. The rest? That's just details.