“Your grandma tells me you are Christian.”

These were the words spoken to me by Judy, Grandma’s paid helper who comes once a week to do whatever needs doing. She’s a middle-aged woman who is a full-time nanny; she does grandma’s bidding on her day off. Judy and Grandma had just returned from an outing to the doctor. Judy’s statement lingered in the air between us: she put it out there, but I wasn’t quite ready to receive it. Of all my characteristics Grandma might have mentioned, this is what she selected?

“Interesting,” I said. Maybe Grandma had a point: perhaps I was a Christian whether I chose to be or not. It didn’t matter if I accepted Jesus as God. It didn’t even matter if I went to church. Some essence that trumps anything I might believe or do has been passed down through generations. I am Christian because as far back as anyone knows, my family has been Christian.

I don’t know if it was her getting older or my religious explorations but since I had been in town, Grandma’s Christian identity had cranked up a notch. She acted horrified by the fact that I had never in my life attended an Eastern Orthodox service. “How is that possible?” she asked incredulously. You never took me, I wanted to say.

Now that Grandma was almost 90, she had a good excuse for never going to church. She said the service started too early and lasted too long. Standing was expected during certain portions of the ceremony, which she could no longer manage. For these reasons, I gave up on the idea that she and I would attend a service together. It seemed strange to go without her, so I ditched the notion of going at all. I thought it was ironic that of all the faiths and denominations I had visited, I would be missing the one that was perhaps most closely associated with my family. I made my peace with this fact. Then, early one Sunday morning, Grandma shuffled into my bedroom in her nighty. “Let’s go to church today,” she said. I looked at her through one squinted eye. I had other plans for that morning, but I wiped them away. If Grandma wanted me to take her to church, by all means, I would do so.

The issue that divides the Orthodox Church from the Catholic Church is reminiscent of the main division within Islam. The Orthodox Church refused the authority of the pope, who Catholics considered infallible. Orthodox Christians rejected the notion that a person could possess an essence, passed down by blood or some other invisible source of transference, which made his relationship to the divine more profound than that of an ordinary person.

This same idea has been hotly contested among Muslims, and it created the Sunni vs. Shiite rift. After Muhammad’s death, a dispute erupted over who should become the next leader of the ummah. Some believed Muhammad had intended his successor to be his cousin Ali, who had been a faithful member of the ummah from the beginning. No one could deny Ali’s loyalty, but others thought Muhammad had specifically wanted to avoid appointing a leader who was related to him by blood. Perhaps he feared his legacy would become like a monarchy where leaders who ascend based on a birthright are assumed to possess an intangible quality that makes them special. This could threaten the equality among members he worked so hard to establish and inspire a devotion that should be reserved for Allah alone. People in this camp believed Muhammad would want his father-in-law, Abu Bakr, to take over.

11 thoughts on “Family

  1. Interesting concept about what defines a Christian. Is it in some ways a culture more than a belief?
    I had a roommate who said that if you grew up in New York City you were Jewish whether you knew it or not.

    And the divisions between Orthodox and Roman Catholic, and between Muslim segments – there seems to be a set of humans who demand an authority beyond themselves, and another set that can live with the best that well-intended humans can do.

    Perhaps that difference is essential to the evolution of the human race. Like the need for adventurers and for “home bodies”.

    • Hi Val, That’s funny about NYC. I think you’re right–these fundamental divisions in faith do indicate some basic truths about being human, especially since they seem to occur in different parts of the world and at different times. But they all point to the same thing: some of us respond to divinity on earth, perhaps captured in a person, and some of us are okay with it being more abstract. And, perhaps, the same person will change in her needs over time or depending on what’s going on in her life.

  2. I think if we’re lucky we evolve through a variety of religious/spiritual experiences even though we may have been born into one and finally settle into one that resonates to our own inner convictions while treating all with respect. In terms of family I find it difficult when a few of my evangelical members want to preach at every family gathering believing that the rest of us would like to hear their perceptions of Jesus. I generally keep my distance. I have become less and less enamored of religion but not of God. Atheism appeals to me as a lot more practical way of life but I have enough of a God relationship to recognize that some things occur to me through prayer that I don’t believe I can call coincidence. Intuitive knowing I call spiritual knowing and the more I trust it the better it works for me. As I’ve said before I think it’s a shame that a few simple truths of the Gospels have given birth to a thousand sects.

    • Hey Frank, I think if people can find a way to feel connected despite all the various interpretations, our differences could be something beautiful instead of a point of contention that divides. Perhaps they could be a source of strength and unity. Though I suppose we have a ways to go before that’s going to happen…

    • Frank,

      Wish I could remember whether I read it here or elsewhere, but someone described himself as being a “lapsed athiest”, because he kept a little piece of his mind open to the possibility of God.

      I find it comforting sometimes to image a God-of-my-understanding who can cradle me on his shoulder and keep me safe, although my intellect is divided on the idea that this Universe, as we are growing to understand it, can be the either an unexplained accident or the work of some being we can call God.

      So I use the word Mystery for whatever keeps us keeping on, and looking for unity, peace and justice.

  3. Yes. Not too many people make it to the top of Maslow’s heirarchy of self-actualization….Maybe Ghandi…Mother Teresa…The Dalai Lama ???

  4. It has been a REALLY interesting experience reading about your observations and activities with Islam. I can truly picture much of what you have had to say. This last entry was quite different, in that Grandma informed you that you were a Christian. What does that mean? Here is some reading which will help re: requirements for being such. Many of these come from Jesus, who is NOT God, but God’s son. (John 20:31) Also, John 14:28, John 17:26, Matthew 28:18-20, Matt. 6:9-10). I hope these help. Of course, there are many more…….

    • Hi Cheri, I’ve just read all the references you mention and I’m not sure exactly what I’m supposed to take away as the main message. Is it just about recognizing Jesus as the son of God? Can you elaborate?

    • She left out Acts 26: ” when he had found him, he brought him to Antioch. For a whole year they met with the church and taught a great many people. And in Antioch the disciples were first called Christians.”

      Even according to the Bible the gospels had not used the term “Christian”.

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