Public Faith: Classroom, Crossword Puzzles and a May/December Friendship
A year and a half ago I was taking a class on social issues in education. I was given an assignment to write a paper “defining what virtue means to me.” I decided to write what I really thought.
I wrote about how the real problem of ethics is grounding it in something supernatural, something outside of the human sphere. Our morality must be endowed or discovered, otherwise it is of no ultimate significance. However, the problem with grounding ethics in an unnatural source is that it leads us to divide people into us and them, the good and the bad and, if we are really thorough about it, we often find ourselves on the wrong side of this divide. At the end of the paper I suggested the gospel as the most compelling and elegant way of reconciling this predicament.
I handed my paper in, and a week later, my professor invited me to stay after class. She was intrigued by my paper and asked me about it, but mostly told me about her life. Dr. Rose Harrison is in her 80s. She babysat for Woody Guthrie, walked in the 1963 March on Washington, and worked her way through graduate school at Columbia. At the end of it I couldn’t help but say, “You are such an interesting person. I want to be your friend.”
After the semester, we went out to dinner and it turns out we have things like bridge and the NYT crossword puzzle in common. Later, she was reading Heidegger and asked me to help explain it to her, but the conversation quickly became more personal. In a transparent moment she shared the fact that she had been on the brink of suicide for months. I shared about my own pain and told her I had found answers in Christianity. I struggled really hard to find the correct wording to communicate what Christianity is to her. But after I failed, I made a bargain with her that, if she gave me the time, I could get her to the point of seeing Christianity as so beautiful that, whether she believed it or not, she would wonder who could have ever come up with it.
There was a lot of ground to cover though, because although she was Jewish, Rose had little religious background and in fact belonged to an atheist society. We traded some books and began a weekly routine of making cocktails and listening to sermons (but I called them speeches so as to not trigger any bias). I began with open forum lectures because they point to the gospel, but are very accessible. In one recording in particular, called The Secret of Our Discontent, she heard her unhappiness described in a way no one ever had. She heard the idea that her unhappiness went deeper and that what she really wanted in life was bigger than she ever dared consider. She has listened to this talk dozens of times since and she jokes that she could have saved tens of thousands of dollars in therapy if she heard this 40 years ago.
Six months later she asked to join me at church and she hasn’t missed a Sunday since. The church has welcomed her with such open arms. I asked Rose to tell me what the past year has mean to her and she said, “being at Redeemer was the first time in many, many years that I felt a sense of love and belonging. That “void” or “abyss” I had experienced last year has almost vanished. My journey has made a true change in my perspective and optimism about life itself.”
Sometimes, I hesitate to share my faith. I fear that I will have no credibility with someone who is more sensitive, moral and spiritually aware. If there is nothing that admirable about me, why should anyone listen? But with Rose, I’ve found that it’s actually when I am transparent about my pain, sin, and things I struggle with, that I most clearly point to Christ.
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