The neighborhood we live in has an annual Christmas lights display now in its 12th year. The lights are a memorial to the memory of a neighborhood resident who was killed in an auto accident during his senior year of high school. Just about every house in this section of the neighborhood displays some type of lit up Christmas display.
For a number of reasons, including the lack of sidewalks and the need for many people to travel to the display from other neighborhoods or out of town, almost everyone drives through the neighborhood slowly to view the lights. Seeing no need to drive around the corner to see something in our own neighborhood, my partner and I walk over to the street with the lights and take a slow, leisurely stroll.
Last year was the first year I saw this display and my favorite house was the house that lit up the tree trunks in the front yard – they look like trees from a Dr. Seuss story, perhaps trees from The Lorax, but with out the spiky tops. They make the trees look tall and rubbery and give the area an atmosphere of a friendly created world just a bit apart from the usual day to day consciousness.
This year as we past the trees, dodging pick-up trucks and SUV’s, we came round a bend in the street to see people sitting in a driveway around a fire roasting marshmallows. Now, these are our kind of people, we thought. We decided to stroll over and introduce ourselves and commend them for their playful, joyful, friendly presence on our walk.
They were indeed happy to receive us and a woman, maybe about our age, introduced herself and her daughter. We heartily accepted their offer to toast a marshmallow. Merry Christmases were exchanged all the way around, along with introductions and first names. We gave their dutiful dog a few minutes to get used to us and to the fact that we were no threat to his owners. Until the conversation picked up again that is.
“So what do you do?” The mom asked us, quite innocent and interested to learn more about us.
“We’re both ministers,” my partner told her. “I run a church here in town.”
“You work for a church in town?” Mom asks. “Which one? What do you do.”
“I’m the pastor,” my partner says.
Mom’s eyes pop out wide. She’s speechless for a moment or two and repeats the question. Just in case she didn’t hear the answer correctly, I suppose.
“I’m the pastor,” my partner repeats. “I run the church.”
Yes, it still surprises some women in Texas that other women are, in fact, lead, senior or sole pastors of churches.
“You run the church,” Mom repeats. “You’re the pastor.”
“Yes. I’m the pastor,” my partner replies again.
“Well, what’s your church?” Mom asks.
“I’m the minister at the Unitarian Universalist Church here in the Woodlands.”
Then the big question comes. “What is Unit…Unitarialist?”
“Unitarian Universalist,” I offer.
“I’ve never heard of that,” Mom says.
No big surprise there. It’s not like there’s a Unitarian Universalist church in every town in these parts of Texas.
“Well what do you believe? What do you teach at your church?”
My partner has been in this part of Texas long enough to know that the honest answer to that question can astound people, dumbfound people, and even scare people. She doesn’t want to tell her and looks at me, saying, “You tell them.”
I, too have been in Texas long enough to know that the way one answers this question is important.
“Well, I begin…we believe in making the world a better place, accepting people for who they are, and helping each other on our journeys of faith.” I am being as vague as I can without being dishonest about what Unitarian Universalism is about.
“Well, we believe that too at my church,” says Mom.
We probably should have left it at that, thanked them for the marshmallows, wished them a final Merry Christmas and gone on our way. We didn’t. Mom looked like she sensed something was amiss and her face looked like she was ready to burst out a dozen questions all at once. My partner, too, sensed that facile brush offs about church were not going to work and jumped in.
“We are a progressive congregation, for example, one of the things my church does is host a prom for GLBTQ kids and their allies who would face a hard time at their school events for being queer.”
Mom was going to be blunt at this point. “Does your church believe in Jesus Christ, our Lord and Savior.”
“Well, not really, although many people respect Jesus and Unitarian Universalists consider him a great teacher,” she paused and looked at me, “you explain it.” My partner looked back and forth from me to the Mom, who was utterly confused at this point.
I did my best to explain Unitarian Christianity and Universalism. I told her that Unitarians did not believe Jesus was a god, that’s the Unitarian part, we don’t have a Father, Son and Holy Spirit God, just a God and Jesus was a great teacher about that God. We also explained that we do not believe in Hell. That was the last straw for Mom. Now she was not just confused, but scared. Not screaming in terror scared like a demon from Hell had just appeared to cart her away for torture and torment, but the look in her eyes said it was a distinct possibly that she now had to be aware of happening at any minute.
“Do you read the Bible?” she asked.
“Yes, in the original languages,” I offered.
At his point, Mom’s husband comes out of the house to join us. Introductions are made all around. Mom informs her husband that we don’t believe in Jesus. I tell the husband, whose name is also Tony, that we don’t believe Jesus was a deity, but we follow Jesus’ teachings. The husband Tony smiles at us.
“There is Hell in the Bible,” Mom said.
“Well…actually…” I explained the difference between the Hebrew and Greek concepts of the afterlife. It wasn’t really doing any good to discuss what was meant by Gehenna and that Jesus was referencing the constantly burning trash heaps outside the city walls of Jerusalem. I was going to suggest that Mom didn’t have to agree with us nor we with her in order to enjoy a fire and marshmallows and the spirit of the season together, but before I could, she spoke.
“You do believe Jesus died for our sins, don’t you?” She asked, but it was more of a statement.
“No we don’t,” I told her, “We don’t believe Jesus died for anyone’s sins.” I told her that I couldn’t believe in any God that required someone to be tortured to death so that I would be acceptable to him. That type of God is mean and capricious and arbitrary and since I believe in God as love I can’t abide such a deity as requires appeasement with torture and death.
“But Jesus died for our sins because God loves us, isn’t that right dear?” Mom says looking up her husband. Her husband just shrugs and gives us this half-smile with a look in his eyes that seems to say to me “I know my wife is a religious nut, but I love her anyway.”
I decided to make one last attempt to end the theological squabble, so I put on my best smile and said we really don’t need you to agree with us and we don’t need to agree with you.
“I know,” said Mom, “but you really should read the Bible more. Jesus did die for your sins.”
“Look,” I tried, “I find it offensive that you feel you need to convert me to your way of thinking and believing. I’d rather just enjoy the fire and marshmallows that you were so gracious to invite us to share with you.”
“Okay,” Mom said, “but first my daughter has something she wants to say.”
We looked at her daughter, who was maybe ten years old, and who suddenly appeared very shy.
“We don’t need your daughter to say anything,” my partner tried.
“No, no, no, she wants to talk to you,” Mom said looking severely at her daughter. “Don’t you, dear?”
Her daughter nodded and looked her mother in the eye and said, “Jesus Christ is our Lord and Savior who God sent to redeem us and so he died on the cross as payment for our sins.” The words were as much recited as spoken in conversation.
“I think we need to go,” my partner said.
As we stood up from our seats around the fire, we both wished Mom and family a Merry Christmas.
“I will pray for you both,” Mom said. Her husband smiled shyly at us and shrugged again almost as if in apology for his wife.
We walked away down the street, a bit shaken, especially at the woman engaging her daughter to proselytize us. I still can’t shake the look of fear in the woman’s eyes. We weren’t people with different ideas or members of a different religion. We were something to fear. As polite as she tried to keep the conversation, her eyes betrayed her. They were they eyes of a caged animal, the eyes of a small child waking from a nightmare, the eyes of an eyewitness to an atrocity.
I am happy to give this woman her beliefs. They do not need to be mine. I hope that someday, the difference of belief is as absent of fear for her and others as it is for me. My own great fear is that the fear of the different translates into an intolerance of the different that then requires the difference to be punishable, either be social impropriety or by official criminal code.
Here’s to a Christmas and a New Year that is less fearful and more neighborly. Marshmallows, a plus.