SOME THINK A CHRISTIAN is one who necessarily believes certain things. That Jesus was the son of God, say. Or that Mary was a virgin. Or that the pope is infallible. Or that all other religions are all wrong. 

Some think a Christian is one who necessarily does certain things. Such as going to church. Getting baptized. Giving up liquor and tobacco. Reading the Bible. Doing a good deed a day. 

Some think a Christian is just a nice person. 

Jesus said, "I am the way, and the truth, and the life; no one comes to the Father, but by me" (John 14:6). He didn't say that any particular ethic, doctrine, or religion was the way, the truth, and the life. He said that he was. He didn't say that it was by believing or doing anything in particular that you could "come to the Father." He said that it was only by him—by living, participating in, being caught up by the way of life that he embodied, that was his way. 

Thus it is possible to be on Christ's way and with his mark upon you without ever having heard of Christ, and for that reason to be on your way to God though maybe you don't even believe in God. 

A Christian is one who is on the way, though not necessarily very far along it, and who has at least some dim and half-baked idea of whom to thank. 

A Christian isn't necessarily any nicer than anybody else. Just better informed.  

- Originally published in Wishful Thinking and later in Beyond Words

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Children's Books

TO STEP THROUGH THE LOOKING GLASS, to pass through the wardrobe into Narnia, to attend the birthday party of Bilbo Baggins is to reenter the world of childhood more fully than is possible any other way. It is not just a matter of being reminded how strange and new and promising everything was back then, but of experiencing it all over again. 

Regardless of how many times you have read the books you loved as a child, the elements of surprise and suspense are always present, so that right up to the last minute you can believe that Scrooge will go on being miserly in spite of everything and that Dorothy may never find her way home. 

To us, as to the child, the happy ending always comes as an unexpected gift from on high. It is the deepest truth that children's books have to tell. Possibly it is the deepest truth there is.  

- Originally published in Beyond Words

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WHEN THE DISCIPLES, overearnest as ever, asked Jesus who was the greatest in the kingdom of heaven, Jesus pulled a child out of the crowd and said the greatest in the kingdom of heaven were people like this (Matthew 18:1-4). Two thousand years of homiletic sentimentalizing to the contrary notwithstanding, Jesus was not being sentimental. He was saying that the people who get into heaven are people who, like children, don't worry about it too much. They are people who, like children, live with their hands open more than with their fists clenched. They are people who, like children, are so relatively unburdened by preconceptions that if somebody says there's a pot of gold at the end of the rainbow, they are perfectly willing to go take a look for themselves. 

Children aren't necessarily better than other people. Like the child in "The Emperor's New Clothes," they are just apt to be better at telling the difference between a phony and the real thing.  

- Originally published in Wishful Thinking and later in Beyond Words

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MARK TWAIN SPEAKS SOMEWHERE of "a good man in the worst sense of the word." A chaste person in the worst sense of the word is one whose chastity is fear and prudery masquerading as moral one-upmanship. A chaste person in the best sense of the word is somebody on the order of a priest who gives up sex in general and marriage in particular so that the church can be his better half and the whole parish his children.  

- Originally published in Wishful Thinking and later in Beyond Words

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MOST OF THE TIME WHEN WE SAY people are charismatic, we mean simply that they have presence. Maya Angelou, Tony Blair, and Desmond Tutu all have it in varying degrees and forms. So did Benito Mussolini and Mae West. You don't have to be famous to have it either. You come across it in children and nobodies. Even if you don't see such people enter a room, you can feel them enter. They shimmer the air like a hot asphalt road. Without so much as raising a finger, they make you sit up and take notice. 

On the other hand, if you took Mother Teresa, or Francis of Assisi, or Mahatma Gandhi, or Nelson Mandela, and dressed them up to look like everybody else, nobody would probably notice them any more than they would the woman who can make your day just by dropping by to borrow your steam iron, or the high-school commencement speaker who without any eloquence or special intelligence can bring tears to your eyes, or the people who can quiet a hysterical child or stop somebody's cracking headache just by touching them with their hands. These are the true charismatics, from the Greek word charis, meaning "grace." According to Saint Paul, out of sheer graciousness God gives certain men and women extraordinary gifts, or charismata, such as the ability to heal, to teach, to perform acts of mercy, to work miracles. 

These people are not apt to have presence, and you don't feel any special vibrations when they enter a room. But they are all in their own ways miracle workers, and even if you don't believe in the God who made them that way, you believe in them.  

- Originally published in Whistling in the Dark and later in Beyond Words

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