“Conversion isn’t, after all, a moment: It’s a process, and it keeps happening, with cycles of acceptance and resistance, epiphany and doubt.”
Take This Bread: A Radical Conversion, by Sara Miles
Raised an atheist, Sara Miles is a left-wing lesbian who traveled the world as a journalist, covering world revolutions. Early one morning, on what felt like a whim, she wandered into St. George’s Episcopalian Church in San Francisco, participated in their “Open Communion” service, and as she received the sacraments, had an outrageous life-altering encounter with Jesus– a Jesus she had thus far scorned and rejected. What happened in the years that followed left me equal parts fascinated, convicted and inspired.
“As I struggled with bread and wine and belief over the following year at St. Gregory’s, it stayed hard. I began to understand why so many people chose to be “born-again” and follow strict rules that would tell them what to do, once and for all. It was tempting to rely on a formula– “accepting Jesus Christ as your personal Lord and savior,” for example– that became itself a form of idolatry and kept you from experiencing God in your flesh, in the complicated flesh of others. It was tempting to proclaim yourself “saved” and go back to sleep. The faith I was finding was jagged and more difficult… It was about action…My first, questioning year at church ended with a question whose urgency would propel me into work I’d never imagined: Now that you’ve taken the bread, what are you going to do?”
Miles had an answer to that. She went on a mission to start and run a weekly food pantry serving the poor and gritty community surrounding the church. Through it, she continually comes face to face with the best and worst of people, within the church walls and outside of them; daily wrestling with what it means to love, to serve, to co-exist and to know God.
“I was going to keep giving food away. What I glimpsed in the projects was the last thing I’d expected growing up: that because God was about feeding and being fed, religion could be a way not to separate people but to unite them…The sharing of food was an actual sacrament, one that resonated beyond the church and its regulations, and into a real experience of the divine. I wanted more.”
Page after page, chapter after chapter, as I read of her hunger to know God and her hunger to serve people, I slunk lower and lower into my seat. This woman. A few years ago, before my own faith shift, I would not have been able to read this book and see this woman for the inspiration and role model that she is to me now. I am embarrassed to say I would’ve judged her. I would’ve said no. Not her. Her lifestyle. Her history. (As if mine is so exemplary) The totally unorthodox and untraditional way she lives in every sense, relative to my White, suburban cage. Ouch. And now. I like her. More than I like myself. She’s going and doing. And I admire that.
“So many of the arguments between left- and right-wing Christians, fundamentalists and Episcopalians, Roman Catholics and Pentecostals, seemed to hinge on the idea that their own sect had the correct practice, “the secret code,” that would save the followers and make God reward them. That was idolatry, as I saw it: magical thinking, pagan religion. I didn’t think God needed humans to practice religion at all: God didn’t need to be appeased by sacrifices or offerings or perfectly memorized quotations from the Bible spoken in the right order. God was not manageable.”
The idea that God is not manageable, not to be tamed; That perhaps there is no exact science to faith and belief… Well, I think I sighed audibly after reading that. I think the relief I have felt at discovering this was…is…palpable.
As I turned the last page of Take This Bread~
This is what I thought:
If you’re doing more judging than loving–
If you’re doing more talking than walking–
If you’re not somehow doing SOMETHING that makes a generous, soulful contribution into other people’s lives–
No one really gives a shit what you think about pre-destination and election. About post-trib or pre-trib. About free will. And quite frankly, I don’t think God does either.
“You have been greatly loved,” said a piece of the Gospel that had stuck with me. Go and do likewise. That seemed pretty damn clear. My only sense of “mission” now was to show others that they, too, could feed and touch and heal and love, without fear.”
Love people and do something about it. Period.
This is what I felt:
A little overwhelmed and embarrassed– a little silly– by how white, suburban, Evangelically, I have viewed God. I mean, really. There is a whole world out there whose experience with God is just as valid and real and authentic. I felt guilty and kinda dumb for thinking that the way I previously believed and lived was somehow better than Sara Miles and everything she represents.
This is what I’ll do:
Ok. The last few years have been rough. And I needed a break– from church, from service, from community, in many ways and on many levels. But as I move ahead in this new season of my life, this book has inspired me to find church again, to engage in community again, to be of service again.
“What happened once I started distributing communion was the truly disturbing, dreadful realization about Christianity: You can’t be a Christian by yourself.”
“Unity is a gospel imperative when we recognize that it opens us to change, to conversion: when we realize how our life with Christ is somehow bound up with our willingness to abide with those we think are sinful, and those we think are stupid.”
I want to give back. I want to get involved again. I want to take up a cause. Be a part of social justice in some way. And this time, with my eyes and heart fully open and aware that the cost of relationships– of community– is part of the rent we pay for living here. And it’s worth it.
“Christianity wasn’t an argument I could win, or even resolve. It wasn’t a thesis. It was a mystery that I was finally willing to swallow. I was loved by a big love. In the midst of suffering, of hunger, even of death. Alleluia. What was, finally, so hard about accepting that?”
Read this book. Even if you don’t connect with Christianity- or any faith at all, for that matter. Sara Miles has written a challenging and engaging story that has continued to help me redefine what I want my journey here on this earth, as a human being, to look like. I am loved by a big love. What’s so hard about that?