Frontier
July 25, 2010

This is for Rick (and anyone else, of course). What started out as a paragraph became several, and maybe a bit too abstract. Sorry if I rambled too much. Just some thoughts.

Many think we are just selfish relativists who want to have our free will without any responsibility or consequence. We are seen and described as non-committal, apathetic-yet-verbose idealists whose primary desire is to buck the system to conform to and justify our own fleshly desires. We are perceived as having near-demonic repulsion to the holy absolutes handed down by wise, God-fearing prophets, teachers, and/or apostles. We may be seen as naïve. Or if we demonstrate that we are not naïve, we are declared as bitter malcontents whose hearts have been darkened by such sins as pride or rebellion.

These are some of the justifications given for declaring many of us heretics, among many other descriptors. And we know these all quite well. In spite of this, and not merely in quick reaction to it, I think the best way to respond is with words such as those spoken by Dean Thomas Ferret, one of the first Protestants who was burned at the stake during a Scottish inquisition: “I am confident my cause is just in the presence of God, and therefore I am not concerned about the consequences.”

I use that quote not because I piously think of myself or others in similar position as martyrs. I wouldn’t dare compare myself to someone who was questioned by an established regime of Christians who were so confident in their specific form of faith that they felt it okay to literally judge the faith of others. Okay, well, maybe I would. Because in the same way that it has been happening for centuries within Christianity, people have felt so determined to defend “the” faith, or at least their form of it, that they have named “their” faith “the” faith. And to this day the inquisitions live on, albeit softly, through various forms in all denominations of what the Catholic church has progressively re-named from “Inquisition” to “Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith,” the task of which since 1965 has been defined as “furthering right doctrine rather than ‘censuring’ heresy.” And I think such soft-pedaling is disingenuous.

Regardless, what I want people to know is that most of us really are, on a heart level, confident that our “cause is just in the presence of God.” And while some might say that one who is sincere can still be wrong, which just makes one sincerely wrong, I think the crux of the matter is that Christians have come to define a relationship with God with too tight of terms, including “right” and “wrong.” I know this may get into the whole relativism-versus-authority debate, but I’ll avoid that by just pausing to say that one way I have come to define my faith is with the same words of those who established the Christian Biblical canon: “This ‘seems’ right to us and the Spirit.” In other words, it’s all a guess. A hunch.

Whatever label some try to put on me, I am holding fast to this proposal: Faith is not faith if it doesn’t involve uncertainty. If it doesn’t involve some trepidation, mistrust, struggle, fear, blindness, and dare I say, doubt, it’s no faith for me. And if my version of God is a god whose deadly “justice” needs defense, that god must die, because he is apparently too weak to stand on his own. And if, in order to further the legacy of such a faith, I must reject any perspectives that question, deconstruct, or defy established doctrines, that’s a legacy not worth continuing.

So these views might make me an outsider of sorts. A wanderer. A lost “prodigal.” But in this sense, I’d rather wallow and share slop with my fellow pigs than return to a house that promises an inheritance. Because, in this case, the inheritance is conditional upon my acceptance of too many house rules based on imagined certainty, and such an inheritance, in my view, is fools gold. And many have made that house and that inheritance into more of a self-proclaimed kingdom. But it’s an insular kingdom, an incestuous monarchy.

For these reasons, I am content with my wandering. But I am intentional in wandering. It’s part searching and part enjoying the ride. Part sailing, part motoring, and part drifting. Part communicating and part staying silent. And a lot of listening. A lot of sniffing the air and licking my finger and testing the breeze. And occasionally putting one foot in front of the other, not on a staircase that brings me higher, but on a wilderness trail with lots of blind turns. And I’ve grown comfortable in the discomfort of that. Confident in the contradictions.

It’s like I’m suspended somewhere in-between, but not like walking a tightrope, trying to traverse from one side to the other and calling it a success. More like the neon suspended in a glass tube, happy when the twilight comes. The time when the world occasionally realizes that night and day are different for each time zone. Because that’s when I begin to see that I’m not the only welcome sign in our lonely town. With each flicker of light here and there, little signs popping on, I’m reminded of the beauty in the art of divine randomness. It’s the beauty of holy chaos. Reds and yellows and all sorts of colors blinking on, some in steady, predetermined  patterns, some of them stuttering for a while until they’re warmed, and some haltingly flashing, barely humming in their own discouraged dimness. But we all light up our own little portions of the solitary road, letting travelers know that they are welcome to stay a while, to exit the busy highway and rest.

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Faith: Before and After
July 19, 2010

I gave a talk at my faith community today, summarizing how my faith has changed. Here’s a summary of that summary. Hopefully you’ll get the picture.

It starts with the simple message I gave people when evangelizing: “It’s so simple. All you need is Jesus. Just choose to follow Jesus.” And when we would get them interested in the simplicity of the message, we’d then say…well, all it takes to start following Jesus is to accept him as your personal Lord and Savior. And to do that you need to say a prayer, and so on.

So someone would say the prayer, become a Christian, and get involved in a church, because every Christian has to go to church…Oh yeah, that’s another guideline we forgot to mention before you said the prayer. And then with the attendance of church comes certain stipulations, and with those stipulations come others, and so on, until we end up with something like this:

My Faith Before

“What should my life be about?”
(abbreviated version)

1. Choose to follow Jesus
2. Choose to accept Jesus as Personal Lord and Savior
3. Sinner’s Prayer
4. Baptism
5. Confession of sins
6. Public Confession of belief, which includes (but not necessarily limited to) the following…
7. I believe in God, the Father almighty, creator of heaven and earth.
8. I believe in Jesus Christ, his only Son, our Lord.
9. He was conceived by the power of the Holy Spirit and born of the Virgin Mary.
10. He suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, died, and was buried.
11. He descended into hell. On the third day he rose again.
12. He ascended into heaven and is seated at the right hand of the Father.
13. He will come again to judge the living and the dead.
14. I believe in the Holy Spirit,
15. the Holy Catholic Church, the communion of saints,
16. the forgiveness of sins,
17. the resurrection of the body,
18. and life everlasting.
19. Read your Bible
20. Pray a lot
21. Go to church (the right one)
22. Evangelize
23. Put a Jesus fish on your car.
24. Don’t Smoke
25. Don’t Drink
26. Don’t Chew
27. Don’t go with boys or girls that do
28. Don’t cuss
29. Don’t be Democrat (abortion, communism, anti-God)
30. Don’t be Republican (don’t care for the poor, arrogant, narrow-minded)
31. Don’t be Gay
32. Don’t be friends with gays (encouraging sin)
33. No secular music
34. No materialism (unless it’s organic, fair-trade, or makes Christians look cool)
35. No tattoos (unless they make Christians look cool, which promotes the gospel)
36. No questioning the anointed, appointed leaders
37. No questioning the wisdom of saints of old
38. No questioning this list, which may grow or change with or without notice…
39. Etc…

I tried to adhere to this list since the times I grew up evangelizing others.

And here’s the thing. I would have said that “Christianity is not a religion; it’s a relationship.” And that my Christianity is not a dull religion that’s nothing more than rules and rituals. Because we knew that that was an opposition people had to becoming Christian. But the fact is that, even though the general idea revolved around a “relationship with Jesus,” we had plenty of rules, some unspoken and some very outspoken, for describing what that relationship should be like.

So at some point–maybe it was more of a process than a “point”–I threw away the list. All of it.

“Yeah, but you’re throwing out the baby with the bathwater,” some might say. Well, yes. I had to. Because the baby was dead. We had drowned it. It was no longer recognizable. I had to start with a new baby, a tub, new water, a new house, everything. A blank canvas.

A blank canvas is like an ocean. Wide and deep and full of freedom and possibility. But it can also be very lonely, isolated, and empty feeling. So I was tempted to make my own list again. I needed to establish boundaries to tell me where to go and where not to go. It started to say things like, “Those people should do this…or should not do this.” And I realized that my list was no better than the old one.

And eventually I realized that my faith was too precious and personal and ever-evolving to boil down to any list to assert on myself or others. It was more like a work of art (with no guarantees of quality, by the way). And this is what I came up with the other night:

My Faith After (for Now)

My Faith Now*

I won’t explain. It is what it is. I am also trying to appreciate the fact that others’ faith is like this too. Each of us have our own expression of life, and it will help us all if we try to value each others’ individuality of faith.

But anyway, my wife just wrote something on her blog, GirlReupholstered, that so clearly and concisely gets at the heart of it:

I have seen a lot of people try to be what others think they should be or what is the most acceptable.  It’s easier to be what someone else wants you to be b/c you know, more than likely, you will be accepted. Also, it’s easier to be told who to be instead of searching yourself to find out who you truly are.

Maybe this has been a struggle for me b/c I was brought up in Christian culture where there are very distinct ideas on how you were created or how you should live. It has always been a very suffocating experience for me which caused a lot of anger, frustration and depression. It’s been since I have left the traditional institution of Christianity have I been able to truly experience freedom to be who I believe God has created me to be. Which is sorta ironic, don’t you think?

[ *Note: The artwork I used here is an image of a beautiful painting by Ren Crawford, found here. I just slapped words on top of it. Ren, your art touched me deeply. Please don’t sue me. 🙂 ]

Do You Know Your Enemy?
June 30, 2010

Do not be too quick to assume your enemy is a savage just because he is your enemy. Perhaps he is your enemy because he thinks you are a savage. Or perhaps he is afraid of you because he feels that you are afraid of him. And perhaps if he believed you were capable of loving him he would no longer be your enemy.

Do not be too quick to assume that your enemy is an enemy of God just because he is your enemy. Perhaps he is your enemy precisely because he can find nothing in you that gives glory to God. Perhaps he fears you because he can find nothing in you of God’s love and God’s kindness and God’s patience and mercy and understanding of the weaknesses of men.

Do not be too quick to condemn the man who no longer believes in God, for it is perhaps your own coldness and avarice, your mediocrity and materialism, your sensuality and selfishness that have killed his faith.

–T. Merton

***

When I first read those lines a year or two ago, I had other people in mind. I envisioned myself saying those words to them, calling out the error of their ways. It’s easy to do that, especially when I’ve been on a journey away from the established traditions that raised me. It’s easy to take every opportunity to snap at those who I may see as hypocrites in religion or those that I feel may be holding us back from “progress.”

Now I’m trying to envision someone saying those things to me. Yes, I’ve had many call out the error of my ways. It’s sort of been a theme of my life for some time now. But this is different. It doesn’t deal with belief or doctrine. It deals with behavior. It deals with the ways I choose to  see the world and others around me.

So instead of “convicting” others of such things as “coldness and avarice…mediocrity and materialism…sensuality and selfishness,” I’m trying to recognize where those elements might have a home in me. Instead of assuming people see me or my views as the enemy (although that may be the case), I’m trying to recognize when I see “them” as my enemy. How do I speak of them when they’re not around? How do I speak to them when they are around?

There’s a balancing point somewhere in all this. What’s the  optimum tension between staying quiet with a humble, open mind, and not hiding my own truths? (To be sure, there’s a difference between “not hiding” and “asserting.”) And to be honest, I’m tired of trying to find the wrong in others, and looking for holes in arguments. It just takes too much energy.

And in that sense, my enemy is often myself, sapping my energy for the sake of an endless war.

So maybe I can try not “knowing” the weaknesses of my enemy, and instead try to know them as individuals. Which just happens to be what I expect of them.

My spiritual exercise for now is to just go with the flow, staying content in my own truths, assuming no ill of anyone else, and remaining responsible for my own words and actions.

But that’s hard.

Are We Lost?
June 25, 2010

In many religions there’s a fundamental assumption that settling down in certainty of faith is a sign of maturity. At least I’ve found this to be true in my Evangelical Christian heritage. Many who are established in churches imply, to those who are not, that one must precisely know what they believe and why they believe it, and if that’s not the case there is something spiritually wrong. In short, if one does not have their faith tied down to an anchor of certainty, they are lost. They then become a target of prayer, evangelism, and definitely a target of gossip.

Anyway, the thinking used to be that when youth left home, they might also leave the church temporarily. They might wander around a bit and experiment, but when they got a little older, when they got married, perhaps, they would return. Or when they had kids, for sure, because everyone knows you have to have your faith statements together when you have kids. And in the past, yes, they would usually come back. But that no longer seems to be the case. Many are not going back. Maybe I should say we are not going back. So where are we going instead? What has happened? Have we lost our way?

***

I spent a few years researching apologetics, the practice of defending your faith. There were times when, as a young short-term missionary/evangelist, even while confidently sharing the Gospel with “the lost” and artfully weaving arguments to win them over, I had my own questions in mind. Of course, I never paid them much attention, because that would have been opening the door to deception, according to our teaching. Well, it’s not that I never expressed my concerns. I certainly drove my family, friends, and professors nuts at times with my unending questions. But my questions were always tethered to a confidence in the fundamentals of my faith. That is, of course, until I started questioning the fundamentals.

That’s when the anchor line broke and my ship set out to sea. To describe the process would take too much space here, so I’ll just say that it was in fact, a process. A gradual stretching that at some point caused my chain of certainty to lose a link, and then another, and another, and so on.

The funny thing is that there are two ways to look at this un-tethering. When someone’s faith-chain snaps, does it represent an aimless drifting that will eventually result in (spiritual) starvation and death? Or is it freedom? Those two ways of seeing it are both represented well on bumper stickers. One says, “If you don’t stand for something, you’ll fall for anything.” While the other says, in the words of Tolkein, “…Not all those who wander are lost.”

For me, it’s been intentional. And for me, it is freedom. But, as another bumper sticker says, “Freedom isn’t free.” With freedom, when you have no visible boundaries, it’s hard to tell which direction you should go. You have to look hard for reference points. And you have to search for food and shelter. And, what can be the most difficult, it can get very, very lonely. You also may occasionally reach a port, where you assume you’re safe, where you might meet some like you. Some ports turn out to be wonderful places of nurturing and security, and others are downright dangerous.

Those who intentionally choose to cut their chains become exiles. Voluntary exiles. Some call us wanderers. But I think some are just innately born to explore, including areas of faith. So some call themselves explorers. Journeyers. And some are refugees, fleeing hurt and seeking hope. I call myself a pilgrim. (That’s why I’ve inked myself with the Latin label “Peregrinus.”)

There are many valid points and counter points to consider with this. For me, some quotes give me comfort in my perspective:

There are only too many men and women who think that, if they have scrupulously repeated the prescribed phrases, made the proper gestures and observed the traditional tabus, they are excused from bothering about anything else. For these people, the performance of traditional custom has become a substitute for moral effort and intelligence.” — Aldous Huxley, End and Means

In challenge to the idea that if people would only involve themselves in a solid Christian church and firm up their faith, their existential issues would resolve, Leslie Weatherhead writes:

Far more people are in distress of mind and body because they are starved of love than because their religious beliefs are in a muddle…. …Men have not found in [churches] an answer to their questions, the satisfaction of their need of fellowship, or adequate scope for their service to others. All this and much, much more they should have found in the churches, and the need for many [non-profit service] organizations would not have arisen if the churches had cared more for men and less for creed and ceremony.”

…And so, I suggest, that is why they set out as voluntary exiles in search of something more.

Perhaps the most apt one-liners come from a 19th/20th-century French writer, Andre Gide, who devoted himself to intellectual honesty. My friend Spritzophrenia brought up this brilliant Gide quote:

Believe those who are seeking the truth. Doubt those who find it.”

But here’s my favorite:

One does not discover new lands without consenting to lose sight of the shore for a very long time.”

4 Anti-Prayers to Screw Up Your Life (and Save It).
May 13, 2010

The following is a prayer that I as an agnostic Christian love to pray because 1) I can say it just to myself if I have trouble imagining God, and 2) it doesn’t really involve statements of dogma, and 3) it’s really about trying to better myself instead of relying on a Flying Spaghetti Monster to rain down luxuries on my life. (This flies in the face of the Prayer of Jabez, and for that I love it too.)

For me, it’s sort of like a manifesto for my life, or at least one I aspire to. A manifesto for a new way of living that seeks to live deeply, beyond the noise of upward mobility and more-ness.

Also for me, I’m declaring an end to the passé drone of self-interest. This is about running, against the wind, toward a way of living that brazenly asserts that another world really is possible.

I’m trying to intentionally meditate on this to help me feel more centered and grounded. It’s made up of four individual prayers, and I’ve been trying (sputteringly) to focus on one each day, or each hour or whatever. Below is my slightly modified version of what’s known as the Four-fold Franciscan Blessing, which I call My Anti-Prayers, because it goes against the common notion of requesting favors from God, and puts more responsibility on me…although I certainly need a Grace that’s beyond me to help make it a reality:

My Anti-Prayers

Bless me with discomfort. Discomfort at easy answers, half truths, and superficial relationships, so that I will live from deep within my heart. (Amen.)

Bless me with anger. Anger at injustice, oppression, and exploitation of people, so that I will work for justice, freedom, and peace. (Amen.)

Bless me with tears. Tears to shed for those who suffer from pain, rejection, starvation, and war, so that I will reach out my hand to comfort them and turn their pain into joy. (Amen.)

Bless me with foolishness. Enough foolishness to believe that I can make a difference in this world, so that I can do what others claim cannot be done. (Amen.)

_____

By the way, because of the sort of screwed-up thinking outlined above, I’ve gotten all idealistic and I’m actually starting to try and make a little difference:

So I’ll be going to Haiti this coming August. (Really.) Let me know if you want to help make this possible and I’ll fill you in on details. (I’ll need to raise about $1,500 as my part — or $15,000 total for our entire group of 10.)

This ministry’s site will give you an idea of what we’ll be doing, and I’ll post updates here on my blog as well.