I began to experience disillusionment with conservative evangelical Christianity about 15 years ago, during college, and it became unavoidable after college. I never had a desire to abandon my Christian faith altogether though. There was a gut sense that there was something within the tradition I could still connect with. I just had to keep looking and perhaps on the outer edges of it.
My father was also exploring progressive Christianity around this time and introduced me to a contemplative monastic Christian community in France called Taize. It’s an ecumenical community, meaning people of all Christian traditions worship together. The community revolves around their unique worship, which consists of simple, sung chants and silence three times a day.
I initially blew off my father’s eager introduction of Taize to me. I was bored by the simplicity of their worship and theology because I was accustomed to long charismatic sermons with strong doctrine, bookmarked by loud emotive praise songs.
But because my soul was sick and tired of hearing about how I was doing so much wrong in my life, I began to take great solace in a worship style that emphasized contemplation, meditation and silence.
A couple of my best friends, who were also raised and disillusioned by the same evangelical tradition, suggested going on a pilgrimage to Taize together. So in the summer of 2007, the summer before I left for seminary, the three of us former evangelical Americans traveled to France to learn how to be silent and connect with God in a completely different way than the one we were raised with.
We ended up arguing a lot about theology during our retreat though, discussing the finer points of our belief systems and outsmarting one another with our references to scripture. Though the three of us had broken away from evangelical Christianity, we were still not on the same page theologically. I was much more antagonistic towards the doctrines and more radical in my acceptance of people of different faiths and sexualities. I secretly looked down upon my two friends who I believed were lagging and pressured them to catch up by disparaging their brainwashed views. I was no longer an evangelical, but the evangelizing nature within me was just as active.
At the same time, these two friendships were two of the most important ones in my life. We grew up in each other’s homes, saw one another at our lowest and most self-centered moments of adolescence. We shared our most scared-to-say-aloud dreams and scared-to-say-aloud mistakes and, for the most part, listened with support and unconditional acceptance.
They left Taize earlier than me because they had jobs they had to return to and I had just quit mine. I stayed on as an intern in their young adult program and met Christians my age from all over the world. All of our theologies were vastly different and yet our desire to know God and love God were the same.
During my final week at Taize, after a summer of being immersed in their worship rhythm of chanting and silence, I decided to end my time there by participating in the week of silence. Those who do the week of silence still participate in the services but are taken to different living quarters so they can spend the rest of their days in solitude. A nun visited us each morning to share a devotional and give us questions to reflect upon.
On the first morning of my silent retreat, the nun asked us to reflect upon the question, “Who is God to you?” I went through my days repeating this question to myself. Who is God to me? I’m not sure. For most of my life, I had been taught “savior” but that didn’t connect with me anymore. That word had been soiled by the demands placed upon me by that savior in order to receive salvation. My spirituality was healing and I needed a new word for God. After a couple of days, the word, “friend” came to mind as the most apt description for God at that moment in my life. It was the most healing description of God I could think of: God as one who never judged me, always accepted me, wanted me to be joyful and actively participated in my joy. God didn’t pull me from ahead or push me from behind. Instead, God walked beside me and let me take my time in whatever I was doing and wherever I was going. This model of divine friendship was doubtlessly informed by the best moments with my two travel companions.
On the final day of my week in silence, I was sitting in the chapel, just singing the chants over and over again with hundreds of others as I had done for the entire month. It was no longer boring or laborious for me. By this time, I knew all the chants by heart and they came out of my mouth with the same familiarity as the praise songs of my youth. This tradition now felt like my new home, my new center. I had never experienced so much silence and meditation in my life and this worship routine had transformed me—my entire body felt different, like a person at the end of a 30 day detox.
And out of that time of chanting and meditation, I received a message in my soul. It was not a message given with words but it was clearer than any message I had ever heard before: “As I am a friend to you, be a friend to others.” That’s where the message stopped but I was able to fill in the rest. Do not judge others. Accept them where they are at. Do not pull them from ahead or push them from behind. Walk beside them on this sacred life journey.
Tears streamed down my face for what felt like hours. I finally understood who God was to me and how I was now called to be for others.
The top image is a famous icon depicting the trinitarian relationship of God, the Holy Spirit and Jesus. They are dining together, as friends do. For centuries, Christians believed that the trinitarian relationship was hierarchical with God as the supreme one, Jesus as second in importance and the holy spirit as the least integral to God’s identity. Contemporary theologians such as Miroslav Volf began to critique this notion and offered a new understanding of the trinity as equality and friendship among the three parts of God. When we believe that there is complete equality and friendship between the three persons of the trinity, and humans are made in the image of God, how does this now inform how humans should relate to one another? The new trinitarian model changes everything.
Understanding God as friend healed my relationship with God and reconnected me to God in a new way. I now offer to you this new way of seeing God—not as a taskmaster from on high, judging your behaviors. Or a savior who saves you from your depraved ways. Try relating to God as a friend who adores you like crazy and walks alongside you you on this grand life journey.