The first time I heard an Aussie ask “How are you going?” I thought he wanted me to give him directions, which is hilarious because I know how to get to, like, three places here. Then I realized I was being presented with an alternative to our American phrase “How are you doing?” And I decided that I really liked it.

There’s a chance I’m taking idioms too personally here, but my journey through faith has been like this: religion to grace. Javert to Valjean. Imperative to indicative. My early years of preoccupation with behavior—to my idea of God as the big eye in the sky, marking my sins on a board that was definitely more permanent marker than dry erase—have been freed (over years of disappointment, decimation, and failure) into a receiving of what has been done on my behalf. What I once feared as indelible—my sin—has been supplanted by what actually is: his blood. 

My posture is a hell of a lot different now than it was when I was anxiously trying to secure my own salvation throughout my childhood, adolescence, and young adulthood. I accept the bread with hands upturned and empty until that nourishment fills them rather than plucking it casually from the tray. And when someone asks me how I’m going, I can’t help but think of my early (mis)understanding of the Gospel as I translate the Australian to American, the going into doing. Perhaps another way to hear the expressions would be as “how are things going with you?” versus “how are you doing things?” The latter’s focus is on how I’m managing life; the former’s is on life itself, and just being in it.

That’s how I choose to hear it, anyway. I told you I take it too personally.

It’s impossible not to live in a world of contrasts as an expat (not to mention as a human being; I mean, who did wear it best?), and just last week I was living vicariously through all my stateside friends’ July 4 posts. The shots of families at cookouts and on beaches and at lakes dressed in all their red, white, and blue glory in the heat of summer is a bit of a jolt when viewed from the short and cold (but not too cold; it was sixty-five and sunny here today, yo) days of a Sydney winter. But I do miss fireworks. And hot dogs that taste more nitrate-y. And American patriotism—which I still have, albeit from across the world with a worried look on my face. 

I’ve exchanged one democracy for another (spare me the constitutional republic/federal parliamentary lectures; I’m speaking broadly here), but the differences can be stark. America was a nation built upon Christian ideals—it’s right there on our money! Meanwhile, people in Sydney look at you a bit funny if you mention going to church on Sunday, then ask if you were, like, on an architectural tour or something? Here’s my dirty little secret, though: I kinda like it. Individuals’ eternal locations notwithstanding (and above my pay grade), I appreciate that faith here is not taken for granted in the same way I appreciated it when I moved from the Bible Belt to New York City. I’m not always up for a roundtable on my personal testimony (#introvert), but I like that people here have a curiosity about it that wasn’t so common back home. Without ever being too intrusive or question-y, the majority of Aussies tend to wonder why anyone would rather sit in a stuffy cathedral than on a sandy beach on a Sunday morning—and while I often can’t blame them, I also think it’s fitting that I should be willing to ask myself that, and have an answer for it.

If I’m being honest, though, my answer often is…I wouldn’t rather. And I don’t think it’s always necessary—sitting in a pew rather than on a beach, that is, when looking for God. In fact, I’d venture a guess that I think about God as often on the beach as I do in that pew, marveling at the wonder of his creation in the churning of the waves and on the faces of my children. And marveling? That happens because of grace, which uses some pretty unpredictable methods to free us. I’ve been reading through Job lately (as a part of the liturgy, not for the usual reason, i.e. in a Who Wore It Best-esque comparison between him and me as to who’s going through a harder time). Confession: in my earlier religious life—which, let’s be honest, is never truly as “back then” as I wish it was since it crops up constantly—I held up Job’s friends as paragons of faith. They had their act together and weren’t afraid to be The Best Accountability Partners (aka, fruit inspectors) Ever to Job. They held his feet to the fire of truth, man! Never mind that his feet were probably covered in boils and suffering enough already and what he really could have used was some antibiotic ointment and one of those foot spa baths.

It wasn’t until later, when I first began hearing this mysterious idea of grace preached, that I also heard the real deal on Job’s friends. Which is that they were, well…jerks. Callous and cold. Consumed by Job’s apparent sin instead of compassion. Rule-keepers extraordinaire. Oh sure, they had God’s authority nailed down. But Job? He’s the one who speaks from the heart. And that’s when things really get good.

It’s only once Job has truly suffered that he’s able to see divine majesty more clearly. What are platitudes from his friends are answered with groanings from Job. Truth from pain.

The religion of the world is karma: you get back what you put out. Utterly within our control; safe and predictable rules. It’s about what we do. This idea is embraced by auditoriums full of people whether it’s Tony Robbins or Joel Osteen or Job’s friends preaching it, whether you’re in America or Australia hearing it. Karma isn’t good news–because it ties us forever to our own deeds, and that is not freedom.

What is, though? I listened to Martin Sheen’s interview with Krista Tippett for On Being recently (don’t tell my dad; Sheen is SUCH a hippie) and he, I think, comes pretty close:

So often, people get stuck — and I did, myself — on the spiritual journey, if you will, with piety, and that is a terrible stumbling block. I have nothing against piety, but I think that piety is the road. It is not the destination. If being pious leads you to a form of personal reflection and acceptance of a higher power, then it has its purpose, but it has to be discarded in the larger picture in favor of the community. Because piety is something that you do, or you tend to do, alone. And true freedom, spirituality, can only be achieved in community. Even if the community is only imagined. I mean, someone living in a cell by themselves, alone in repression, in the darkest of times, still, they are in community. That’s the wonderful thing, that image that Catholicism uses and refers to as the “communion of saints.” That even after we’re gone, we are still a part of something that’s very much alive, and we respond to. And our church is — thank heaven for this extraordinary man, Francis, who is teaching us that our church has to be less a museum for saints then it should be a hospital for sinners…I love the community of saints and sinners…You can’t really separate them. You can’t identify one without the other, which is wonderful, because that’s community.

The mom of a kid in my son’s kindergarten class recently told me that she loves passing me in her car as I’m walking to pickup on Thursdays because it’s one of my kid-free afternoons and, she says, I “look so free.” Admittedly, I feel pretty free without two young boys using my body as a jungle gym. But I also know I’m not. Not fully, because I’m bound to them irrevocably by love. Weirdly enough, this is what freedom is: this tie that pulls us away from just ourselves and into relationship, into awe and wonder, whether it’s experienced from a pew or a barstool or a beach. It is the binding of ourselves to something greater than ourselves, our behavior, our predictable big-and-little-g gods.

I’ve lived now in two ostensibly free nations, and before that, within two very distinct understandings of the Gospel. But the freedom I ache for deeply and need, whether or not I want it in any given moment, is a freedom from fate, from karma, from what I would orchestrate. A freedom from doing and into being—being delivered into the hospital of sinners, into relationship, that transcends nations and this world and the tidy faith of Job’s friends, who heard but did not understand, and looks like the groaning and bloody faith of Job, who finally saw—and it was wonderful.