I was in high school when I first heard the term cafeteria Christian. The American preacher was telling us about it at church camp, he was a passionate apologist, and I remember a lot of “them” and “those people,” a lot of derision about the idea, shaming. Because cafeteria Christians, especially those cold and liberal mainliners, just pick and choose whatever they like from the Christian faith, more concerned with political correctness than the Real True Doctrines.
Cafeteria Christians, well, those people don’t take what they’re given, the whole nutritious balanced plate, no, they make a meal at the ice cream sundae station, chase it with Lucky Charms, they skip veggies.
In my tired years, I was a mega-church refugee, a burned out ministry wife, a doubter, a questioner, a people-pleaser, a tired performer, a new seeker all over again, and I found my way to the Anglican Church. And they helped save me a time or two, because I was not taking communion, I was receiving the Eucharist, just another twenty-something evangelical kid on the Canterbury Trail.
One day, I was on a lunch break from my credit union gig in downtown Vancouver.
I walked up Burrard, hugely pregnant with my second child, hurrying through the crowds of business suits, sidestepping buskers, pressed by the constant hum of conversation, of busy and capable people, the feeling of go-go-go-go on the young city’s sidewalks. I cut from the crowd at the corner of Georgia to climb the stone steps of the old church.
From the voices and the bustle, the modernity and money of our glass towers and dime-a-dozen sushi joints, to the narthex of an old cathedral. This silence and holiness, this quiet, was existing right at the same spot, but for the seeking. The weight of holiness and prayer, the smell of candles, old wooden pews, lanterns, musty papers. The dull light coming through hundred-year-old stained glass windows illuminated only dust swirling in the air. The church was completely empty, yet the doors were open, and even that small grace felt like a whole new thing to me.
Despite my enormous belly and ungainly posture, I managed to kneel down on the kneelers in front of the altar. There was a prayer book for people to write down prayer requests for evening prayers, and candles that could be lit to symbolize one’s own prayers, the unspoken, unshared, the ones that didn’t make it to the book.
In those years, it was the deepest question of my lonely heart ….
what is it to live as if you are loved? To no longer feel this need to strive or prove anything? to just rest in the unforced rhythm of the grace of God? I had no idea what that would look like for me, I had no idea if it was even real. Every week, I came here, and I struck a match, in hopes the wick would light for me again.
The oddest thing happened on that day. I started to cry. I don’t know what it was, maybe just the pregnancy hormones, a miracle encounter, who knows. It was all so wonderful and beautiful and quiet, I suddenly couldn’t stop myself from crying.
There was space for me there, and I felt air filling my lungs, arms wrapping around me, and a tremendous sense of rest came over my soul. The wick caught, I dropped the match.
I felt overwhelmed by Love, surrounded and enveloped.
I didn’t have any desire to pray for anything. I didn’t want anything. I didn’t need anything. I felt sufficient and whole, mended and healed, caught. I just wanted to rest there, in that Presence for a while longer.
A line of Scripture that I’d been memorizing rose up in my heart: He will quiet you with His love. And it made sense to me. I felt…quieted. I felt that love, that peace and suddenly everything else seemed to fade in importance. It seemed funny to me that everything seemed quieter – my failures, my fears, my still-angry questions, my worries, even my victories, all quiet now. There was just Love there. I felt like a child in that space between awake-and-asleep, wrapped in the arms of their mother.
I got my start in the small organic faith churches of western Canada, and it was good, but I needed the kind conservative Southern Baptist pastors’ wives I discovered in my early twenties, and I needed the Mennonites to teach me about pacifism and thrift, and I needed the mega-church’s passion, and I needed the newly-reformed friends, and I needed the mysticism of my charismatic roots, and I needed the desert Abbas and Ammas.
I needed Lectio Divina, a labyrinth, liturgy, and the Jesus Prayer, I needed my Bible, and my friend Tez in Australia, and I needed the Book of Common Prayer. I needed the established theologians, and poets, and the up-and-coming bold bloggers, I needed the emerging church, and now I need my little community Vineyard. I need happy-clappy Jesus music, and I need the old hymns I sing into the cavern of the bathtub while I wash these small tiny souls in my care, and I need Mumford and Sons, too. I needed my husband’s seminary textbooks and discussions, and I needed big hairy worship anthems in stadiums with light shows, and then, when I didn’t, I needed empty cathedrals, pubs, the Eucharist every week, open fields, and church outside of the lines, and I need it all, still, always, I hold it all inside.
I used to call myself a Jesus-follower, unable to identify with all these Christians
—I wanted to rid myself of my affiliation with the Church, emphasize Christ as the centre of my faith without the baggage of the Church. But I couldn’t be a Christian by myself, and I am the Church, too, and here I am, there you are, there’s room for all of us.
Part of what restored me to the Church was this: learning that the Body of Christ is bigger, wilder, far more glorious, than my own narrow ideas and personal experiences with her. Now I prefer calling myself a big-tent Christian, a no-labels Christian, a Christian with a generous orthodoxy (thanks to Brian McLaren for that term), a banquet table believer, a mismatched homemade quilt of all the ways to walk in The Way.
I’m a picker-and-a-chooser, maybe that preacher would call me a cafeteria Christian, but I’m just like everyone else, and the picking-and-choosing, the matching together of seemingly disparate ways of being a Christian, it all helped save my life.
I needed to spend a bit of time in the cafeteria, I needed to settle down at a big table with a crosspatch of food. The Body of Christ is bigger and bolder, more lovely, in the wilderness, than I’d ever known or expected if I’d remained only in my one little camp. It was my crossing camp lines through reading, conversation, friendship, showing up to listen, that kept me. I’m all of it, I think it’s mismatched and holy and beautiful.
[photo: basykes, Creative Commons]