I Do Believe I’m Religious

I’m spiritual, but not religious. In popular vernacular, I’ve understood this to mean that to be spiritual is to have subjective, internal feelings and notions of the divine, but to be religious is to be committed to a particular concrete practice, a community, a tradition. It’s an immensely popular idea, almost a dogmatic tradition unto itself. And I get it. At its best, the descriptor acts as a principled resistance to cold dogmas, heartless practices, brittle words that wound rather than heal in a complicated, harsh world. Fair enough; we need some resistance here. We need dissenters to keep us honest because God knows religion gets just as destructive and deranged as anything we humans get involved with. It’s why the Scriptures have the prophets.

But in the end, the line just won’t do for me. Initially, it has a nice ring to it; but the notion ultimately leaves me hollow. Like those massive conifers we saw in the Scottish Highlands–magnificent, towering and gutted to the core. Devoured from the inside, there was nothing left to hold them strong, nothing to hold them in their beauty. They’d fall, with great heaves, and rot into the wet sod.

In the end, it’s not vague notions of faith that keep me steady and rouse my hope. It’s Jesus, the one who was murdered on a heavy Roman cross and who rose again out of one particular tomb. It’s Jesus’ very particular and very difficult (if not insane) words about loving enemies and laying down my life, alongside instructions to care for the poor and the stranger and widows (what the Good Book calls ‘true religion’), that arrest me. I’m to resist the allure of power. I’m to turn away from greed. I’m to pursue love of neighbor and submission to God’s people. This Jesus makes demands upon me. Jesus asks me whether or not I will follow. I can obey, or I can disobey–but either way, it’s something solid, something that stands in my way, something that offers to hold me fast, if I’ll have it. It’s very particular.

Abstract ideals don’t have the grit I know is required to save me. Rather, it is Jesus’ body broken in the bread, Jesus’ blood spilt in the wine. It is my actual neighbor actually sitting next to me (someone I may not like, if I just get to choose), as we eat and drink together. It is the songs we sing and the Scriptures we hear. It is our commitment to living in this actual world (not the idea of a world). To say I’m spiritual but not religious would be, for me, like saying I believe in community but don’t want a friend or I love the wild but would never actually set foot in a forest. I need the real stuff.

Jesus, the harshest critic of distorted religion in history, didn’t set up general spiritual concepts. Jesus got dunked in water, gave us bread and wine around a Table – and then said, “Keep doing all this. Together. In my name.”

In a creative roundabout that showed no disrespect to St. Paul’s original line, T.S. Eliot once wrote an essay resisting popular notions that dismissed Christian doctrine and practice as primitive and unenlightened. “The spirit killeth, but the letter giveth life,” Eliot wrote. Eliot insisted that our vague ideas about religion (the spirit of the day) inevitably degrade into false, if not self-serving, caricatures. But the particular, the actual details, the demands even – that’s where the fire burns.

Rend the Heavens

In a cynic’s age where suspicion and aloofness and religious detachment suffocate us, it’s an electric shock to the system when, on the first week of Advent each year, we read those wild-eyed prophets bellowing words so fiery they’d wake a corpse. Yesterday, Isaiah prayed a dangerous prayer: God, rip apart the heavens and come down, so that even the mountains would tremble at your presence. The prophets believe that either God acts on our behalf, or we’re ruined. The prophets believe that we need God or we’ll die. The prophets, these Advent prophets, dismantle our cynical, sophisticated attempts to manage God.

It seems we need these wild voices to announce Advent to us. Otherwise, we’d only yawn and roll over and continue our delusions that we’ve got things mostly in control. But we don’t. Anyone with half an eyeball knows we’re in trouble. All of us are in trouble. This whole big thing we call the world is spinning off kilter.

And when we’re in trouble, when we’ve played our last card and we’ve got absolutely nothing left up our sleeve, then (maybe then) we come to our senses enough to turn to God and pray that beautiful, beautiful prayer: help. And in Jesus we find that God loves nothing more than to answer this honest ask.

But most of us keep working the angles, always imagining a new dream hand. The game’s done, and the dealer’s eyeing the door. But we’re crunching the numbers, refusing to see what’s plain as day to everyone else at the table. We haven’t really owned the fact that we’re finished; our best efforts have played out. We don’t see how desperate we are for mercy.

Advent, if we’ll have it, moves us back into reality. Advent tells us that without God we’re wrecked. But thankfully, Advent also tells us that God holds the cards. Advent assures us that God is always the God-who-is-Coming. Advent leads us into an abundance of mercy.

 

Photo by Stephanie Fox on Unsplash

 

Playing the Fool

In these heavy days, sometimes I find myself tempted by despair, wondering if maybe we’ve finally experienced our culture’s Andreas Fault. Maybe the cracks really are too deep and the destruction too crushing. Maybe the whole thing will break apart and we’ll just have to watch everything crumble and then pick through the rubble. How will we find our way back to one another? How will we mend all that is broken?

But I tell you the truth, when all the despair and the disintegration have played their oppressive hand, I inevitably find my way back to hope. I’m a goner; I do believe that goodness gets the final say, I do. I’m a man of faith. It’s the easiest thing in the world to wear the cynic’s hat, to finally give myself to suspicion of my neighbors (especially the ones I most dislike). It seems foolish to stand amid the raging furnace, insisting on kindness and gentleness, the courage to push against the evil even while maintaining an open heart to all of this world’s complex beauty, to each and every of this world’s beloved creatures. It does indeed seem foolish. But then, call me a fool. Like I said, I’m a man of faith. And being a man of faith and playing the fool are, at least in my experience, often close to the same thing.

 

Photo by paul morris on Unsplash

A Future Born in Mercy


Gaudí commenced construction on the Sagrada Familía, a Basillica in Barcelona, in 1882. They say it’s on target for its expected completion date: 2026. Gaudí died in a trolley accident in 1926 at the age of 73. Believing his work was for God, whenever someone chided him for the ridiculous time horizon, he’d answer: “My client is not in a hurry.”

I don’t know the answers to the many vexing concerns of our moment, but I think a good dose of Gaudí would at least be part of our way forward. We hear the wisdom encouraging us to be attentive to this one present moment (this conversation, this page of this book, this purple Climatis climbing our mailbox, this act of resistance) rather than frantically pressing and swerving toward whatever’s next–and this is absolutely true. However, to truly inhabit attentiveness to the beauty and responsibility of each single moment, we have to also trust the long view, trust the long story. I get the sense that Gaudí was able to enjoy each stone cut, each piece of marble laid, precisely because he knew the future was not his to control, that he was to do his part (and do it well, with real diligence, no shirking) but he envisioned a future that did not ultimately depend upon him. He would draw his blueprints and lay his portion of the edifice, but then other hands would take it from there.

The work before us is larger than us, larger than our lifetime. We have responsibility, but it is a responsibility born and worked out in mercy. We do not strain toward tomorrow. We do our good work today, and then we trust.

A Pastor’s Picture

Being a pastor is often a joy, but like every vocation, it’s far from peaches and cream. Stanley Hauerwas once said that being a pastor is like being slowly nibbled to death by ducks. Thankfully, I’ve never been in a church like that, but there are days when it seems like I should have stayed a stockbroker or tried my hand as a backcountry guide or maybe become one of those pro Minecraft gamers on YouTube.

There are days when you watch someone you love walk away or you are riddled with questions just as it seems like an answer’s what everyone needs, days when your pastoral energy’s flat as a pancake, days when you feel like you had something really worthwhile to offer in a sermon – only to crater that baby with a class-A nosedive. There are days when you know that all you really can do – all you’ve really ever been able to do – is invite people to Jesus’ Table, to proclaim the good news of God’s love, to remind us of The Story, to hold your hands wide and break that bread and invite people to come on home. And though you know this is all you can do, you hope it is enough.

And then one day, a child gives you a picture they drew of you in that moment. And your heart swells with gratitude. And you whisper to yourself, “It’s enough. It really is enough.”

A Legacy of Joy

As I reflect on the legacy of those who led our nation through the early decades of the civil rights struggle, I’m struck by their courage, their tenacity, their profound love, their unflinching conviction. However, I’m perhaps most amazed by their joy. I think of giants like Fannie Lou Hamer, the sharecropper who Chris Myers Ash (in his book The Senator and the Sharecropper) describes as the force “who rose to become the spiritual leader of the Mississippi Freedom Struggle.” I think of Dr. King’s bone-stirring oratory. I think of John Perkins and how his words, even now, resound with such weight and open new terrain inside me. I think of all the music those steadfast marchers sang, the haunting and hopeful melodies. Laced throughout all their appropriately sharp words, their calls to action, their naming of evil, you’ll find a swift current of joy. This was not giddy joy or easy-won joy. It was not a joy ignorant of the wrong that must be righted or the monumental work that needed to be done. But it was a real joy, a steely-eyed joy; and I believe this joy fueled their hope.

It’s normal, necessary even at times, for fear to prod us into action. When a rattler’s about to strike, a good jolt of fear gets the body moving pronto. However, we can’t (healthily) operate on fear long-term. Over time, fear leaks a poison into the soul. But joy – there’s a power large enough to fuel a life. Joy (our joy and the joy of others) opens up possibilities fear never will. Fear lures us into a shrinking circle, but joy moves us outward with boldness. Fear warps our sense of things and, like acid, eats away at our humanity and at our ability to honor the humanity of those we fear. More, fear draws absolute lines, with “the enemy” dominating our imagination. The trouble of course is that whatever or whoever we fixate on slowly shapes us. It’s one of those strange cruelties that we often become a mirror reflection of that thing or person we oppose. But joy – joy throws a massive wrench in fear’s runaway wheel. Joy helps us shed fear and move forward with abundant faith, tenacious hope and vigilant love.

No wonder our Scriptures tell us to pursue joy always.

Those Dogged Daffodils

It’s not even Valentine’s Day for crying out loud, and yet the daffodils scattered across our front yard are punching their way out of the cold, hard dirt, reaching up toward the sunshine. This resurrection is an even more rigorous task than usual for these flimsy green shoots because the mammoth Ash we had to bring low refused to go quietly and left in its wake piles of split logs, mulch ground from the small branches and a towering pile of shavings from the mother of all stumps we had to grind out of the earth if we ever wanted to have another tree make its home here again. Yesterday, a fellow moved a truckload of wood, and underneath crouched those defiant, dainty daffodils, bits of green hanging on for dear life, nearly flattened to the ground, but pushing forward slivers of yellow and white. What’s a couple tons of wood to a tough ol’ daffodil?

They’ve got spunk, these early-bird jonquils. After all this effort, they’re out there basking in the warm rays, all the while daring Old Man Winter to bring his worst. Surely somewhere in the flora’s biological memory, it knows the warmth is a ruse, that we’re not done with the serious cold snaps. Yet there they are, risk-takers with a flair. If these daffodils could make their way to Vegas, there’d be a crowd around their blackjack table for sure. They might lose every dime to their name, but they’d go down in a blaze of fury and glory.

Such beauty and tenderness, such courage and tenacity. I hope they make it through the coming weeks. But if they don’t, I will be grateful for their burn-in-the-wind life.

 

Pain: An Invitation into Love

Last week, I confessed to Miska how much resistance I feel in several areas of my life, a lethargy I can’t shake. Genuinely curious and without any judgment, Miska asked: “I wonder if you’re trying to avoid pain?” I’ve been pondering this in the days since.

I don’t know that avoiding pain is the only factor at play, but I’m newly aware of how easy it can be for me, when I’m not operating in my truest self, to attempt to arrange my life so that I don’t have to enter the complications of vexing conversations or strained relationships. At times, I can put more mental energy than I care to admit circumventing other’s judgments or disapproval. I can often grow disillusioned or angry when I face troubles that seem unrelenting or even more so, when I see how others face severe sorrows while God seems so very absent. Is not pain our great enemy? Is not suffering the sign that God has gone on vacation?

Into this place, I read again Paul’s word reminding us that as God’s beloved, we are drawn into the fullness of Jesus’ experience. We share in his life, but we also share in his sufferings. I’m not suggesting for a moment that my recent malaise is anything so noble as this, but I am reminded that avoiding pain, natural as the impulse may be, is not exactly the goal. God is immensely kind and desires to nurture and heal us, but apparently, as was true with Jesus himself, sometimes suffering (on our own behalf or for the sake of others) is part of our vocation.

We encounter suffering that bellows from the evil we humans do to one another; we must name this and resist it – and I’m in no way suggesting that anyone should endure injustice out of some vague spiritualized ideal. We also encounter suffering with no apparent cause other than tumultous weather patterns or bad luck, or suffering bound to the fact that we are mortals in bodies that decay and grey and wither, bodies that sometimes do the opposite of what they are supposed to do. With our Israelite forebears, ones who knew suffering perhaps more than any people ever have, we cry to the heavens with those gut-wrenching Psalms, prayers of both agony and relentless faith.

And somehow, in this mix, we also add this strange witness: some pain is an invitation into Jesus’ own love, arms spread wide for the love of the world.

Don’t Lose Heart

moose-in-wyoming

Whenever Jesus wanted to encourage his friends to keep praying and to not lose heart, he told them a story. It was a strange story, I’ll grant you: a tenacious widow who badgered a louse of a judge until the scoundrel relented and handed her a legal verdict, though only to get her off his back. Nonetheless, the odd story did the necessary work. We need stories to help us remember that all is not lost, that what we see in this dire moment is not all there is to see, that God is not nearly so far away as it may appear.

People of faith have always told one another stories in order to keep the fire burning. When I was young, we called these stories testimonies. We knew we needed to bear witness to the faithful love that carries us even through the howling night. We needed to receive one another’s faith in those weary stretches where our faith was weak and faltering. God knows, it’s the easiest thing in the world to lose heart. It’s the easiest thing in the world to sink into despair or cynicism.

And so Jesus told a story and said, Keep praying. Don’t lose heart. I think this is one good way to describe prayer: the refusal to lose heart, the refusal to relenquish our hope in God.

So hear these words today: Do not lose heart. I know our world is in the thick of it, ripping at the seams – but do not lose heart. I know your family may be buckling under the crush – but do not lose heart. I know you may feel you are alone without any true friend who knows the deepest parts of you – but do not lose heart. I know you may be tired of holding on, tired of playing your fiddle while the boat sinks – but do not lose heart. I know the questions and the fears claw at your soul – but do not lose heart.

I’ll keep telling my stories, and you keep telling yours. When one of us lags or buckles, we’ll pick each other up, knock off the dust, keep walking toward the dawn. Together, we’ll stand up bold, even if a bit wobbly, and we’ll refuse to relinquish our faith or our hope or our love. Somehow, we’ll make it through.

A Word for Cowards

It requires no imagination whatsoever, nor an ounce of courage, to surrender hope. Anybody can play the cynic’s card. Nihilism may masquerade as some noble act of intellectual integrity, but let’s be honest – you can get there easily enough by just dousing every flame and then slinking into that dark hole from which you never emerge. When we surrender our life, it’s often because of that gutsy, valiant effort: inertia. Like Wendell says, “The word inevitable is for cowards.”

Anybody can bury their disappointment or pain in a cloud of overwrought ambiguity. Anybody can cut joy at the knees. Anybody can lay down and assume everything’s meaningless, purposeless, empty.

I want to demonstrate more mettle than this. I want to stare down all the confusion (and there’s much), all the failures and the impossibilities (and there’s more than a few), all the grief and sorrow. I want to see these things, embrace them even, and then summon things truer, deeper – maybe things more reckless. I want to believe in what is good, solid and just. I want to abandon the coward’s way.