Becoming Christ-like Heathens

Becoming Christ-like Heathens

by Ann Pederson

What is done in the world is transformed into a reality in heaven, and the reality of heaven passes back into the world. By reason of this reciprocal relation, the love in the world passes into the love in heaven, and floods back again into the world. In this sense, God is the great companion—the fellow-sufferer who understands.” Alfred North Whitehead, Process and Reality, p. 351.

Sometimes God calls a person to unbelief in order that faith may take new forms.” Christian Wiman, My Bright Abyss, p. 61.

I have walked through the door of unbelief so that I might recover faith. What pushed me to take that walk, I hope, is the God in whom I believe called me to this unbelief. At least a kind of unbelief that is often wrapped in the packaging of a Christian belief is pinched, too small, and narrow. A belief that reflects our culture of fear and control. When God’s name is to condemn and alienate, to dominate and domineer, God’s name is used in vain. Fear motivates this kind of belief, in a God that like its believers, gets reduced to the scope of their anger, fear, and anxiety. I know that I can be guilty of this kind of belief as well, where instead of receiving the grace of God’s open arms I find myself shutting the door to people I am most afraid of or don’t understand.

When I read Christian Wiman’s memoir, My Bright Abyss, I found a theological soulmate. Written from the struggles he faced with cancer, he reminds his readers that God is found at the edges of life, where uncertainty beckons and doubts are real. Wiman challenges the kind of Christian faith that takes us away from facing those edges and doubts and leads us to meaningless assertions and platitudes that can be vain and empty. Wiman, in his deepest despair and grief, faced his fears—of dying too early, of too much unbearable pain, of the loss of loved ones, and of losing God. He takes the readers to the ragged edge of unbelief. And in doing so, he is met by God whose love and compassion receives his pain and suffering, a God who understands. This understanding that Wiman receives is the overwhelming peace of God. Such peace is a gift. God’s grace comes to us in our most desperate moments. Comes to us freely and fiercely. Then to our surprise we find ourselves flooded with compassion for those with whom we have our deepest fears and struggles (including God). Fear and control are met with freedom and joy.

A very close friend of mine died recently of a long journey with breast cancer. But the last few months, while she lingered between life and death, she was held in tender care by the caresses of her family members. Time seemed to come to a stand still in her parlor in the massive, Victorian house where Schrödinger, the Cat, seemed to appear and disappear. When she finally died, much later than she wanted, her daughter asked me if I would help with Mary Helen’s service. I believe she asked, “Would you, you know, emcee the service? We aren’t religious. So, nothing religious.” My friend had long ago left behind her rigid Missouri Synod Lutheran upbringing where simply being told that women were not worthy to be ordained sent her flying from its doors. She rarely entered any other institutional doors of religion. And yet, I can think of no other person that I knew who so embodied the compassion and love that she so admired about Jesus. In one of our last conversations, she told me that of all the people in the world she wanted to have had dinner with it would be Jesus. To just sit and talk. And knowing Mary Helen, they would have shared all of the latest books that they had read, read poems to each other, and Mary Helen would have knit Jesus a scarf to cover his homeless shoulders. From deep in her mother’s womb, Mary Helen was knit from the love of God. But she took off the clothes of her mother church and sent them to the rummage sale. Instead, she wore the compassion of God that she knit through acts of love as she completed her life story as an emergency medicine physician. Mary Helen, in one of her last conversations with me, said that she hoped her grandchildren would be raised as Christ-like Heathens. One meaning of the world heathen is to dwell in uncultivated earth! That was the door into which she was sending them—to be compassionate, to love the world and God, to enjoy life, and to reject any form of religion which created the opposite. To become dwellers in God’s creation. To be Christ-like: to love, to serve, to find deep joy. To be a heathen: to reject all the forms of belief which impede being Christ-like.

God calls me to faith, that is, to let go of all that which serves fear, anxiety, and control. I hope that as I move ahead with the endeavor of faith that God calls me to, that I can do so with the same compassion and kindness that Mary Helen’s life conveyed. I pray that St. Mary Helen, as I like to call her now, will lead me into this new world and to God, who thankfully, is the peace that passes all understanding.


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  1. Keith McPaul

    Ann, What a wonderful story of real faith.
    I very much like your first statement, “I have walked through the door of unbelief so that I might recover faith.”
    This encapsulates the thoughts of many of what Shelby Spong calls the “church alumni”.

    I have sent this article to number of my friends.

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