We are so often concerned with form. It is easy to worry about the appearance or outward show of people's faith as the measurement of how they are doing. If they are following the normal customs, forms, disciplines and traditions of the faith, then we tend to assume that they are fine.
Last September I had an extraordinary experience. I had the rare opportunity to see my brother Mark. I am the oldest of five children. He's the second oldest, two years my younger. When he was sixteen he abruptly left our home and moved out west and has been there ever since. I might've seen him a total of a few days in over 30 years. We've talked on the phone, but that just doesn't do it for me. When he left, he turned his back on the church, the faith, and our conservative lifestyle. IN September, when I got off the plane and he met me in the terminal, we immediately bonded and enjoyed each other's company for a whole week.
He's a great cook, drinker, smoker, swearer, fighter, among other things. He lives totally off the grid, without any I.D. or any documents at all. He doesn't officially exist! I laughed harder than I'd laughed in a long time. He was an encouragement to me. Please understand: he doesn't know the language of faith, the proprieties of religion, the ethos of Christianity. He has nothing but faint childhood Pentecostal memories. One night we were sitting at his kitchen table while his homemade cannellonis (manicottis) baked in the oven. We were drinking a fine syrah, smoking and talking. As he was rambling on, carrying me through a series of emotions from laughter to rage, I was struck by the deep spiritual qualities of my black-sheep brother. I couldn't help but feel, in spite of his roughness, toughness, lack of the right knowledge, absence from all things religious, and wild and dangerous lifestyle, that he was precious to God. Throughout the week, he exemplified, for me, the spirit of Jesus... without the name, the forms, the customs, the baggage, and the symbols... but the spirit of Jesus just the same. I was humiliated by my arrogant exclusive stupidity the church is reluctant to challenge.
He talked about coming out to see me. I said I would love that and want my family and friends to get to know him. He was taken aback because he figures he has no place around anybody religious or even spiritually minded. He assumes that there's no place for him for two reasons: one, he wouldn't be accepted as he is; and two, he thinks that he would have to become squeaky clean to be admitted. As much as I tried to explain the nature of our community and how I think my friends would love him, he couldn't believe it.
That whole week event reminded me of this story, "Three Monks on An Island" by Leo Tolstoy:
Three Russian monks lived on a distant island. Nobody ever went there, but one day their bishop decided to visit them. When he arrived, he discovered that the monks didn't even know the Lord's Prayer. So he spent all of his time teaching them the prayer and then left, pleased that he'd done his pastoral work. But when his ship had left the island and was back in the open sea, he suddenly noticed the three hermits walking on the water ‚Äî in fact, they were running after the ship! When they reached it, they cried, 'Bishop, we have forgotten the prayer you taught us.'