Like White Cake with White Icing: Dull Things Christians Say

A tiny, white leather-bound New Testament was among my children’s books growing up. The size of a sliver of grocery store cake, it had a white silk ribbon for marking fragile pages smaller than my Old Maid cards. Moving the ribbon about among the pages felt precise and like something an adult might do. I practiced my letters in red marker in inside cover. It was the only Bible in my house growing up—we were not Christians and we did not read it.

99ec0771c372afc551f992a6693f6b15After I became a Christian in my 20s, a Catholic, I’d like to tell you I wore out my Bible, reading, studying and absorbing it. But I didn’t. When as a Catholic I heard the theological concept of Sola Scriptura “Scripture Alone,” it sounded sparse and cold. It sounded like an untouched Bible on the back of the shelf. Something with a pretty ribbon but not of much use.

Martin Luther gave the Christian world the phrase, nay, injuction, Sola Scriptura. Luther was a Catholic priest preparing a series of sermons on the Psalms in Wittenberg in 1513 when he was struck by Psalm 22. It begins, My God, My God, Why have you forsaken me? Catholics and other Christians have heard these words on countless Good Fridays. What did Luther hear? He hear Jesus Christ, fully God and fully man, the Incarnate Word, God Himself, express desolation at the hour of his death. God despaired. What Luther heard in Psalm 22 was Mercy.

Meanwhile in 16th century Europe, the Catholic Church was selling indulgences, tickets out of purgatory, a bit of a boost to heaven, so to speak. A possibly apocryphal little ditty is said to have been recited as the monks strode about, “When a coin in the coffer rings, a soul from Purgatory springs.” Salvation was for sale.

Reading Psalm 22, Martin Luther realized Jesus died for his disciples at the foot of the cross and for the good thief and the bad thief, for those who crucified him and for all of us thousands of years later. When Christ rose three days later, he purchased the salvation of humankind, once, for all. Our salvation has been won. There is no need to purchase release from purgatory. Luther’s epiphany was a stark contrast to the Catholic Church’s selling of indulgences, and for Luther, brought into question its authority in all realms.

To be fair, it is a misconception that Christians had no access to scripture before the Reformation. While the printing press was invented in 1440, the literacy rate in Europe was very low. The average person did not own a Bible, and could not have read it anyway. In England the 16th century, it is estimated 90% of men and 99% of women were illiterate. However, the common person had access to Scripture through the Mass, through churches decorated with stories from the Bible and a strong tradition in Catholicism of preaching in the vernacular.

The issue for Luther was authority, and the Catholic Church placing itself as the arbiter of salvation between God and man. Regarding this arrangement, Luther wrote, “Through this perversion of things it has happened that the knowledge of Christian grace, of faith, of liberty, and altogether of Christ, has utterly perished, and has been succeeded by an intolerable bondage to human works and laws.”

As an aside, The Anglicans did not get involved in the matter until much later. In 1545, the Catholic Church convened the Council of Trent as reaction to the Reformation. The Catholic Church declared, “. . . that regarding authority, Roman Catholicism gives equal veneration to the Scriptures and the traditions of the Church, written and unwritten.” Here is where the central difference between Catholicism and Anglicanism emerged (beyond Catholics eventually descending to of the use styrofoam coffee cups after services while Anglicans would persevere with porcelain). The central position held by the Anglican Church throughout the centuries is that the ultimate authority is Sola Scriptura—Scripture alone.


Three years after his encounter with Psalm 22, Luther nailed his 95 theses to the door of Castle Church in Wittenberg. In 1520, seven years after Luther’s experience with Psalm 22, he wrote “On the Freedom of a Christian.” Luther had been engaged in a public debate with the Catholic Church for some time. As a result, had been asked to write a conciliatory letter to Rome acknowledging the Church’s authority.

Instead, Luther wrote, “One thing, and one alone, is necessary for life, justification, and Christian liberty; and that is the most holy word of God, the Gospel of Christ, as He says in John 11:25: ‘I am the resurrection and the life; he that believeth in me shall not die eternally.’” Luther would be excommunicated the same year.

Luther continued, For if the touch of Christ was healing, how much more does that most tender spiritual touch, nay, absorption of the word, communicate to the soul . . . ?” Luther compares the word—absorption of the word—to an encounter with the living Christ. How much more healing, he asks, does absorption of the word communicate to the soul than that the woman with an issue of blood touching the hem of Christ’s garment (Matthew 9:19-21), or Jesus restoring sight to the blind man (Mark 8:22-26). That’s how close Christ’s healing presence is to us. How close Christ himself is to us. As close as our Bible. That’s warmth, not chill.

I’m not suggesting the Bible is a sort of magical amulet and that if we sleep with it under our pillows all will be well, friendships restored, depressions cured and the lame rising up to walk. I am saying a vast, profound encounter with Christ is immediately accessible to us. I am suggesting we dust off our Bibles.

Luther wrote, “If we cleave to the words of faith — to God’s promises, we become penetrated and saturated by their virtue.” If we absorb the Word of God, if we allow it to change us, God will fill us with every good thing. We will say with St. Paul, “It is not I but Christ who lives in me.”

d34e5dc5b9c4ffb83dab277945dc2a1eEvangelical Christians have spent centuries honing to perfection one question to annoy others with the utmost effect: “Do you know Jesus?” I have been on the receiving end of that question as a godless heathen and as a Roman Catholic. I never quite knew what it meant, except that there was some fun I was having I shouldn’t be, or, like this potentially insufferable essay, the question was a recommendation that I should read my Bible more.

We Episcopalians tend to evangelize by leaving people alone or handing them a cup of coffee, but at the risk of inciting the wrath of every atheist, agnostic and Catholic who has ever endured it, allow me to ask the same question in a somewhat more nuanced way.

Do you know the God who became flesh so that he might demonstrate the depths of his mercy, a God who allowed himself to experience the mortal fear of death in the Garden of Gethsemane, the pain of crucifixion and the hollow depths of abandonment? Do you know that Jesus loves you unto madness? As you are? Sinning or not, reading scripture or not?

When a Christian says Merry Christmas, she means, The Word became flesh and dwelled among us —the same Word present in the pages of our dusty Bibles, a Word on the precipice of changing everything we understand about this world and the next.

Another dull thing Christians say? God loves you. He became flesh to prove it. Merry Christmas.



Cleanse Him with Water, Snow and Ice: an Islamic Prayer for the Dead


In my childhood line of sight, his brown legs ended in thick leather sandals, the kind with big brass rings and tire-tread soles. He wore them tending the garden, by the pool.

I called him by his surname, Ishaq. The Ishaqs were the only family we knew when I was growing up, the weekend-in-the-cabin family, the camping family, the chicken curry family (Ishaq was Pakistani), the family with whom we shared Thanksgiving dinner.

If Ishaq wasn’t in the yard when my mother’s car pulled up, he might be reading the paper in his fake plycraft recliner, goldish tan, tire treads on the ottoman, the first thing I’d see when we stepped in the side door.

When his children, Serina and Rashid, and I were too much, he’d expel us from the room imploring us to “Go play in the traffic.” 

Circa 1971, ’72, ’73, ’74,  ad infinitum, I sat in a swiveling barstool across from the stove, flanked by Rashid on one side, Serina on the other. The three of us hitched and twisted in our chairs like roughly spinning tops. Ishaq and his wife Ann cooked chicken curry as we three watched, pan simmering, heady, foreign spices, splatter of oil. I can hear Ishaq saying, “Wonderful.” One night, my drunk mother started screaming he had put a chicken anus on my plate. I shrank in horror, feeling sorry for Ishaq. I knew little of chicken anuses, only gratitude that someone had cooked for me.  And I knew Ishaq was kind. I always knew this.

When he was pleased or amused by some turn in conversation, he’d say, “Beauty, beauty!” 

Circa 1975, I was mad at Rashid and threw his towel in the play pool. Ishaq chased me to swat my butt.

Circa 1979, swerving down a steep hill on my bike, a tennis racquet balanced on the handlebars, I took a terrible, high-velocity fall. That evening at the Ishaq’s, I noticed blood seeping from the flesh above my pubic bone. Nine or ten years old, I stood in the bathroom humiliated and unable to hide, dead silent as Dr. Ishaq cleaned up my privates. He weighed the need for stitches. He decided on a butterfly bandage.

In past years, I regularly ran into him at the grocery store. “Ishaq!” I’d call, “Dr. Ishaq!” a little louder. He face beamed, his arms spread wide. “OH-my-GOD!” he’d say—Pakistani accent—as if surprised every time, as if seeing me were the most wonderful thing in the world. He’d hug me. So much love.


‘O Allaah, forgive and have mercy upon Ishaq, excuse him and pardon him, and make honorable his reception. Expand his entry, and cleanse him with water, snow, and ice, and purify him of sin as a white robe is purified of filth. Exchange his home for a better home, and his family for a better family, and his spouse for a better spouse. Admit him into the Garden, protect him from the punishment of the grave and the torment of the Fire.’

-Islamic funeral prayer

Choudhry Mohammed Ishaq, rest in peace. Thanks for the beauty.