Generational Power and the Church

A post detailing the 12 Reasons Millennials are Over Church has been making the rounds on my social feedz this week and is widely praised by youngsters and sympathetic oldsters alike. The church has failed to adapt to Millennials' needs or include the voices of younger people, says the author.

Missing from the conversation is the fact that Boomers are experiencing a severe loss of cultural capital as Millennials come of age. On one hand we have (until recently) the largest, most powerful generation in American history. No generation in 241 years has inherited a greater horde of wealth, power, and unprecedented economic growth than the Boomers. On the other hand we have... their kids, another huge generation with enormous cultural capital and an unprecedented ability to connect across geography and create culture unbounded from traditional gatekeepers. In fact, Millennials have surpassed Baby Boomers as the country’s largest age group, according to Census data.

This is a power struggle. Boomers know how to wield power and Millennials are just learning what it means to have some. We see this across every institution: the church, education, even in the CIA.

Usually people don't just give up power. Many of the institutions Millennials are rejecting or seeking to change (Boomers taught us to disrespect institutional authority, by the way) were built from nothing by Boomers. It's no wonder they feel a little threatened when Millennials question the way those institutions function, or point out they're no longer relevant.

People usually don't just give up power, except Christians are to be a people who specifically live out a sacrificial love which inherently forfeits power for the good of others. We must forgive Boomers and Millennials alike for lacking spiritual formation the church rarely has sought to offer.

The Absent Church

Last week at Network Coffeehouse I spoke to a man who had been released from DOC (Department of Corrections—aka prison) the week before. He was released with all his earthly possessions in a backpack, a list of services around Denver, and a voucher for clothes. After he was released, he hooked up with a woman who quickly disappeared with everything he owned.

My impression was that he knew no one, had no real connections in Denver, and wasn't sure what he would do next except check in with his parole officer.

Two things occurred to me while speaking to him.

First, the irony of his experience. For many people living in homelessness, the major factor contributing to their condition is an inability to connect and attach to other people. Ironic, then, that this man had trusted someone who immediately contributed to making his condition worse.

Second, except for his short time at Network the night we spoke, the Church was absent from his life. He didn't indicate how long he spent under the tutelage of the state and I didn't ask. But I wonder, if he had had a relationship with a church while he was behind bars, would he have found himself in the predicament he did a week ago? Perhaps he still would have found himself on the street. But with a community to turn to, maybe a lost backpack would not have been such a concern.

To visit the prisoner, the stranger, and the poor is called righteousness by Jesus. According to the author of Matthew, to fail to visit these is to invite eternal fire (Matthew 25:31-46). And yet, the church is largely absent from the people and places Jesus calls it to be.

Of course, some efforts to visit the poor do exist. Network Coffeehouse is one. United Methodist Committee on Relief works worldwide to ease the suffering of people experiencing disaster. Denver itself is host to several efforts by churches to feed the hungry and clothe those in need. But these groups serve to highlight the absence of individual Christians and organized ecclesial bodies in the public sphere, witnessing, encountering, and bearing up under suffering.

Where the Church is clearly called by Jesus Christ to be, there instead exists a sucking vacuum. Into this conspicuous absence the most vulnerable people in our society are pulled. There, they are preyed on by demonic forces: drug dealers and cartels pushing meth, crack, and heroine, sex traffickers enslaving adults and children alike, pay day loan organizations and their capricious usury, day labor centers doling out work without appropriate wages, jails that increasingly charge fees for the most basic amenities. And then there's my friend at Network who simply needs a pair of pants. Standing against this force we have burned-out case managers, parole officers, a few people compelled by religion to serve their neighbor, and the odd person here or there who cannot help but find themselves among the poor and suffering. It is not enough.

The bulk of the Church, the living body of Christ, Jesus' hands and feet supposedly animated by the Spirit of God? A barely audible whisper at best. Unaccounted for, unseen, and unheard. Absent.

Ramsey 19:16-30

Then someone came to him and said, “Teacher, how many campuses does my church need for me to have eternal life?” And he said to him, “Why do you ask me about church metrics? There is only one who is good. If you wish to enter into life, buy his books and seminars.” He said to him, “Which ones?” And Jesus said, “the Show; The Legacy Journey; Smart Money Smart Kids; Generation Change; Junior’s Adventures; also, You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” The young man said to him, “I have all these; what do I still lack?” Jesus said to him, “If you wish to be perfect, sign up your church for Dave Ramsey’s Financial Peace University and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.” When the young man heard this word, he went away grieving, for his church didn’t have the budget for that.

Then Jesus said to his disciples, “Truly I tell you, middle-class existence shall be much easier in the kingdom of heaven. Again I tell you, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is middle-class to feel satisfied.” When the disciples heard this, they were greatly astounded and said, “Then who can be saved!?” But Jesus looked at them and said, “For mortals it is impossible, but for Ramsey all things are possible.”

Then Peter said in reply, “Look, we have left everything and followed you. But we don’t have any of his books. What then do we have?" Jesus said to them, "Truly I tell you, at the renewal of all things, when the Son of Man has paid down his student loan debt, you who have followed me will also be debt free, pitying other people under the yoke of late-stage global capitalism. And everyone who has houses or credit cards or a car payment or children, will receive a stern talking-to about budgeting, and will inherit eternal life. But many who are first will be last, and the last will be first, so buy Dave Ramsey’s books today."

Christianity Beyond Memes

I’ve been thinking about this post of mine recently. Mostly because that Richard Rohr meme continues to show up in my social feed.

It occurs to me that both “options,” or ways of doing and being Church offered by this meme, potentially leave out a group of people for whom Jesus would seek to show care and concern. Here I'm thinking of people who experience severe developmental delays and disabilities. Usually these folks need a high level of care from those around them whether they be parents, family members, or specially-trained healthcare workers.

Such people usually exist on the margins of the Church. Our churches do a poor job including anyone in worship, service, liturgy, missions, and outreach who does not conform to the narrow parameters of body and ability that most of us exist within. This is a failure of underlying ecclesiologies (theology about the Church) which demand “belonging and believing” on one hand or “following the way of Jesus” on the other.

The Way

“Following the way of Jesus” is especially problematic in its privileged assumptions. It flirts with the notion that one must first attain knowledge about how to live, and then have the ability to live within the narrow constraints of that knowledge. It is a kind of gnosticism: one has special knowledge that leads to salvation. It should be obvious how limiting this is for people with cognitive disabilities.

Belonging and Believing

“Belonging and believing” has problems of its own. Believing is an especially fraught requirement for those whose with impaired cognitive abilities. What does it take to “believe” a certain set of precepts? What does it mean to live those precepts out?

However, "Belonging” offers a wider frame. With very few restrictions, one may belong to the body of Christ. This is a community that makes an universal offer to all: come and reside with us, with Christ. This kind of community can and does encompass an incredibly wide variety of ways of being human. In this case, those who confess Jesus Christ as Lord comprise the body of Christ alongside those who may not have the capacity to overtly confess as such. As saints, they share a common belonging within the metaphysical ship we call Church.

Individualism

Which brings me to my final point about the popular meme that is the occasion for these two posts: it falls into the post-Enlightenment, American Protestant trap of foregrounding completely the work, knowledge, faith, and being of the individual person. Even the side it seeks to negate (“belonging and believing”) falls almost completely on the action of the individual.

What of Christ’s being? That is what ecclesiology really is: applied Christology. In becoming part of the Church, or by seeking to follow Jesus, the focus really ought to be on joining Christ’s being, Christ’s life, Christ’s teaching, Christ’s work, Christ’s crucifixion, death, resurrection, and Christ’s faith. It is the work of God in Christ and the enlivening power of the Holy Spirit that hold all things together—even stupid memes.

Ethics

Previous Comic  –  Next Comic  | Original art for this comic is available  in our store .

Previous ComicNext Comic | Original art for this comic is available in our store.

Today’s comic is part of a special series done in conjunction with St. Andrew United Methdodist Church’s Wildflower service. They are doing a great sermon series on doubt, and asked us to cook up a few comics related to the theme for each week. Read the entire series.

Not MY Pew Survey

In my day-to-day life, I have to pay a lot of attention to what’s happening in religion news. In the past couple weeks, the major talk has been “the rise of the nones,” a talking point drawn out of the recent Pew Research Survey detailing shifts in American religious affiliation.

The rising number of people choosing “nothing in particular," a subset of the "unaffiliated" label, has raised hackles across the theo-political spectrum, from evangelicals decrying the de-Christianizing of this great Christian nation to more mainline Protestant handwringing over the decrease in possible butts in pews that, if they'd only stay, might somehow stop their particular denomination’s death (note: nothing will stop this).

The problem with this range of views (as far as I’ve read) is that, while certainly broad, it’s pretty shallow. There’s nuance to the “nones.” I can say this with confidence as someone who has drifted across the borders of that category once or twice or every other day. While there are certainly those in the group who don’t care about religion, Americanly expressed or otherwise, such a category also holds those with complicated feelings of their lives as uniquely religious, of all things as uniquely religious, and who have done the work to interpret those feelings.

The “spiritual but not religious” crowd tends to be cited here, though it’s often cited with an air of disdain or ignorance. Sure, there’s plenty of b.s. that can go along with this, but there’s also some legitimate expressions from thoughtful people who are keenly aware of divinity as a deeply woven into life but have no interest in an organized structure focused on it. I can’t say I’m in agreement with those folks, but they can make good points. And they might be “nones.”

On the not-quite-flip-side, you’ve got the “religious but not spiritual,” a growing group who are keenly aware of the importance of religious community, of liturgical expression, of the collective search for mystery. Yet they do not experience the spiritual elements of the faith community as personally transformative, at least not in the traditional ways that other adherents within the community might. I’ve rested in this group for long stretches of my life. Maybe I’m there today. I’ll let you know.

Then there are true “nones,” people who have no sense of their being as spiritual and who have no interest in the communities who do. But even in this group there is nuance. Plenty of folks I know fall here, yet even they have complicated relationships with religion, whether as something which drives their academic lives, something that used to drive their personal lives, something that influences how they still seek to live in their secular community, etc.

My point being, this rise of the nones probably doesn’t mean what you think it means. Or rather, it doesn’t mean only what you think it means. Don’t forget the nuance. And for heaven’s sake, if you’re part of a faith community that’s already trying to figure out how to reclaim these nones from the death grip of secularism, take the nuance into account before you launch Operation ReJesus. The nones will be grateful.

Exhaustion

I'm exhausted. It's always interesting to think you know the meaning of a word until you inhabit it, until you see how much further into the thing you can go.

I accidentally walked into a church service in a hip coffee shop on Sunday. I say that like I wandered onto a mine field. That's how I mean it. I was instantly exhausted then, back when I thought I knew the meaning of the word.

I was instantly exhausted, instantly uncomfortable, instantly bothered. I have my reasons. I've been against this type of twee Christian self-love-fest gathering for a long time now. I wasn't always. But as my picture of God grew, so did my unrest with coffeehouse worship. Not because you can't worship wherever you want, but because so often it's a celebration of how different your edgy church is.

Places like this talk a lot about "magnifying the Lord." This urge to "magnify God," as if God isn't already Being itself, fits right in with urban reclaimed stained-wood tables holding lattes made from single-origin beans nestled inside of home-kilned mugs. It's predictable, and not in a good way. It's person-magnification. It's a shallow aesthetic meant to replace the work of worship. For me, what I walked in on was not worship. Not of God, anyway. People clapped at the end; that's how you know you're doing church wrong.

So I went to sit outside, where I felt God was more likely to be. I've had that sense of God for as long as I can remember. God as wild, and untamed, and damn-well magnified enough already. I sat outside, and I let all the pain and exhaustion of my current world rest on top of my rejection of some self-congratulating thing which seemed about as far from the Divine life as anything else I could think of. And I cried a little, and I thought of Mary Oliver's poem "Wild Geese." And I knew God was there, in the poem and in my remembering it. And I was okay.

You Mad, Internet

Recently I wrote a piece for Ministry Matters, where I’m an editor and writer, entitled “American Sniper or Selma: How Christian is Your Movie Choice?” It was doing well in its first few hours of internet infancy. It seemed to be getting views and likes and shares through Facebook, decent clicks from the home page…the waters were calm, and I felt good. ‘People are getting it,’ I thought. ‘They’re getting it, maaaaan.’

Then Sojourner’s graciously ran the piece, and a wave of fury broke upon me. Suddenly I was no longer an American, just another naive member of the "extreme left" with thoughts of sugarplums and non-violent action running through my head. I was “comparing apples and oranges,” I was "misguided," I “got it all wrong,” and I even found out that I “wouldn’t survive a day of Navy SEAL training.”[^1] I was basically the devil.

Except when I wasn’t. Plenty of people felt like I’d done a perfect job letting them know which movie was the Christian option, which one was for Christians and which wasn’t. Only that wasn’t my point. I wasn’t trying to hold one “faith film” against another in order to measure which one was more Jesus. Although if you’d like me to do that, I can.[^2]

Neither flick is a Kirk Cameron special, some shallow made-for-TV movie about how to radiate the best American Christianicism. One is a war biopic, the other a historical biopic. Both have social commentary subtext. Both have a goal. The thing is, one is about a man doing something very Christ-like, and the other is about a man shooting people in the face. That’s the basis for talking about these movies as religious commentary. Subtext. I realize it’s not the easiest to find, down there in the sub.

For posterity, the point of the article was that a current formula running through entertainment is “sell violence wrapped in patriotism, and you’ll capture a large chunk of Christians eager to bring their religious fervor to the product.” A few readers caught that; a surprisingly few few.

I couldn’t care less which movie you see. See ‘em all; you develop taste and standards that way. But when you do, think about the message you’re being sold. Also think about the worldview you’re imposing on what you’re seeing, since that has just about as much, if not more, to do with what you’ll take away. If you’re a Christian, ask how Christ would call you to react if you were in the contexts of both films. What would Christ call you to have done before you ended up in those contexts? What does Christ call you to do in your actual context that looks similar or different to the narratives of the men in those two films?

The answer you come up with is what I was asking for you to find when you read the original article. It’ll show you the version of Christianity you hold dear; it’s up to you to figure out how Christian that version actually is.

[^1]: No duh. [^2]: Selma. Selma has more to do with Jesus.

Full On, Balls to the Wall, Pedal to the Metal, Mind-Bending Mystery

Mark Sandlin of The Christian Left has a bio on Time.com that is careful to mention he's from the South. He's a bonafide, capital 'S' Southerner from the South. The American South is where I'm assuming he's from. Except, you know, without all the baggage.

Well, Flannery O'Connor is also from the capital 'S' South and one of her stories was the subject of my last post. Obviously Sandlin didn't read it, because if he had he probably wouldn't have written this.[^1]

Collectively we need to more closely follow the lead of Jesus and lovingly confronting [sic] those who want to turn the Prince of Peace into a tool for dividing and marginalizing. Every time anyone tries to exclude a group of people they dislike in the name of the Great Shepherd, we must pronounce the radical inclusion of a loving God.

I mean that's cool. I get what he's saying. I agree that there's a lot about American Christianity that's distasteful. Sandlin isn't exactly using Jesus to divide and marginalize. But he clearly knows who's a sheep and who's a goat,[^2] who's on the top rail and who's on the bottom, and he just wants to lovingly confront people with that, you know?

That's what Christianity is about, right?

Maybe Sandlin appreciates that Christian grace is a full on, balls to the wall, pedal to the metal, mind-bending mystery. But judging by this article published by Time, I don't think he appreciates it very well. For O'Connor—and increasingly for me, as well—grace goes beyond the eschatological vision of the sheep and goats in Matthew 25. We can expect our virtues as well as our failings to be burned away by the mystery of grace.[^3] How then will we tell the sheep from the goats?

We are free to define Christianity as Left as opposed to Right, Progressive as opposed to Conservative, Protestant as opposed to Catholic (as opposed to Orthodox). But I have to believe that we would do better to define it by grace and the paradox of faith.

But hey, I'm probably just jealous that Time isn't publishing any of my own half-baked ramblings.

*[^1]: I have a very high opinion of myself. *[^2]: Matthew 25:31-46 *[^3]: Talk about getting rid of baggage.

Artful Worship

Holy, holy, holy! Lord God Almighty! Early in the morning our song shall rise to thee. Holy, holy, holy! Merciful and mighty, God in three persons, blessed Trinity.

Hymn as Art

It's amazing that that's a hymn. It's wonderful, isn't it? Even as someone who struggles daily with what I believe, with what I want to be true and what I want to know, it's easy to see the beauty there. It's a poem, it's got a beautiful melody that I would sing to you if you were here, it's a theology lesson; in short, it's a hymn. That's what hymns are supposed to do. All that stuff I just said. It's a huge task, and lots of "hymns" fall short. So many fall short, they started calling them "praise and worship" songs to skirt the criteria.

At this very moment, I'm listening to Sufjan Stevens' version of "Holy, Holy, Holy." When I listen to this (which is often), I think "why isn't this what Christianity sounds like?" It sounds like morning, like a new dawn, like a breeze, like life. It sounds like he gets the hymn, actually. We in the Christian tradition are blessed with some amazing pieces of worship art, and yet what grabs the spotlight arcs evermore toward the commercial and the bland. This is the unescapable consequence of the Protest Reformation. Don't get me wrong, Luther had some good points. But if you want to see how tasteless and artless and uninspiring Christianity can be, walk into one of a million Protestant churches in America. Maybe the picture of Jesus will be interesting. Like, maybe he won't be white.

I realize that, so far, I've been picking out a smaller piece of worship, the music, to make a larger point. Though let me point out that contemporary worship isn't the only perpetrator; old churches that sing old hymns can be just as bad. So the issue here isn't that "the old hymns are the good hymns." It's about good art versus bad art. It's about which art moves us into an experience with the divine, and the other kind which is about feeling good. And just because a church practices high liturgy doesn't mean they've got their finger on the pulse, either. When the liturgy and the atmosphere and the worship art, in all its forms, move us to an encounter with Being, that's when things are moving as they should. That's when the art is doing its job. Not only is it beautiful unto itself, but it's moving outward and shaping us. It's giving us a glimpse of grace and divinity. It's teaching us something. Can a contemporary song do this? Of course it can. But I haven't heard one yet up to the task. Maybe that's me just being picky. But if we place value on the space in which we worship and all that we hear and see in that space, I think it's to our benefit to make sure that the entire worship experience is examined. American Protestantism (and it's the American kind I speak of because that's where my experience lies) pushed off so heavily from symbol and art in its desire to find a kind of basic purity that it went entirely off the grid.

When we take things like hymns seriously as art and as theological tools, we're affording them a value in our attempt to become, in our attempt to more fully connect with divinity. When Sufjan sings "Holy, Holy, Holy," he's teaching. The hymn is doing its job, and as the interpreter and presenter of the art, he's doing his as well. That's why it works. He could just as easily do this with a song that doesn't try to be "religious" at all. Any song that meets the criteria above is a hymn in my book. Unfortunately, almost all contemporary Christian art (which I don't really recognize as its own category) fails to meet even one of those standards. I don't think it's because people are less able to create something beautiful that teaches me a theological truth—I think it's because Christianity (which is different from a life lived in and through Christ) is about presentation and perception and baseless emotion. In short, it's about selling me something.

Lemme Buy Some Jesus

Now, I'm not trying to put all churches in a basket here. I'm aware that many still practice meaningful, inspiring liturgy in a meaningful, inspiring space. It happens. I've seen it. But it's far more likely that I'll see some place called The Rock or Lighthouse or LoveSpace or J-Man's Clubhouse 4 Totes Awesome Timez. And what would I find in there? Probably "contemporary worship." Now, before I go on an old-man rant, let me say that I recognize the need for nuance. Not all churches do anything, not all contemporary worship is the worst, etc. Still, I can't remember the last time I heard a hymn that taught me anything that wasn't written by a dead person. Praise and worship songs (and the worship environments they feed and are fed by) are anthems meant to evoke an emotion, not tell you anything. It's not about you contributing to the worship in that moment, it's about the worship affecting you. This approach reeks of commercialism and marketing, which has become the mark of American Christianity. Churches are stores, and you shop around for one, and you buy the one that fits.

Hymns are an extension of the need to create in the face of the Creator, to create while being created. It's a fascinating way to connect with who we are and who we wish to be. The fact that such a process has become so largely about hitting the top of the Christian charts is depressing, naturally. I'm probably not telling you anything you don't know. Entering into a new Worship Center complete with gym and smoothie bar would be enough to show you that bringing people into churches is a business. The art is reflected in this cynical, extremely un-Christ-like model. Most new worship songs are as flat as the large screens they're projected on. Asking me to sing "Jesus, I love you" fifty times doesn't mean anything. It's about trying to get me to feel something. To have big feelings. Because if I have big feelings, I'll come back for more feelings, and eventually I'm donating to a place called The Highest Loft for a new warehouse to feel in. And I guarantee that what I experience in that space won't be about confronting the Divine. It won't be about reshaping my mind, heart, and the works of my hands. It'll be about getting me to buy in to a message with all the depth of a Thomas Kinkade painting. Which, incidentally, is the featured art at The Highest Loft.

So What?

So what? Where does that leave us? We know modern Christianity is increasingly hyper-capitalist. We know what this focus on self, on the push to get to "the basics" of scripture (which is usually framed as getting things squared away with yourself, again), extends into our sensory worship experience. A church's space has a tendency to reflect its theological priorities. The sights and sounds you experience in that space is critical for the theological education and spiritual health of the congregation within. Remembering that our expressions of and confrontations with the divine can be shared as meaningful worship art is a start. If we hang a painting or photograph in the church, or choose a certain hymn, let's just stop and ask why. Let's ask if the art is teaching us something, if it's moving us toward a more full life both with our fellow worshippers and with those beyond the walls. Let's ask if our hymns are good hymns, and if they're leading us deeper into the arms of goodness.

With Ears to Hear

Living in a crowded city like Nashville (though any large city seems crowded to me, a kid who grew up in a small Alabama town with no stop lights), I find myself seeking out quiet places. It’s an interesting thing to want a deeply natural quiet as a human being. We’re an incredibly social species, and yet it’s tough to acclimate to the noise we create. It is for me, anyway. Sometimes I think it’s a matter of conditioning, that growing up where the noise surrounding you is wholly other, something that both hints at where you could belong but reminds you of how separate you actually are, makes it tougher. Growing up, I would lie in the grass behind the house and look up at the Alabama pines. I would close my eyes and listen. I felt like part of it all, like I belonged. Now, I’m terribly aware that I’m not aligned to the rhythm of the cicada’s hum, the whippoorwill’s chant, or the rustle of the breeze through the leaves. When I hear them now, just as I did when I was a kid, I love the feeling of wholeness they bring. I feel connected to something so large and so lovely that I can’t figure out what to say or think. Probably because I’m not supposed to say or think anything. Quietude exists for a reason.

Maya Angelou died last week, and her last tweet got me thinking. “Listen to yourself and in that quietude you might hear the voice of God,” it reads. She’s onto something important there, as she usually was. One of the first sermons I remember having an influence on me as a young person was on seeking God through silence. I think it struck me hard because it’s something I already knew to be true. There is something divinely wonderful in escaping ourselves. Though maybe “escaping” isn’t the right word. Maybe it’s a matter of retreating deeper into ourselves, running through familiar fields full of what we know and can clearly see into sun-dappled forests where shadows and the unknown wait and watch. This could be what I’m looking for when I pause on my hikes in a local park, crane my ear, and listen to see if I’ve gone far enough on the trail to leave behind the sounds of the road, of other people, of my own busy life.

A few weekends ago, I decided to start my Sunday with a hike. I woke up early, prepped the dog, and made it to the park early enough to avoid any crowds. I took the long trail, narrow and surrounded by brush and branches. When I reached the midway point, the path opened up to a wider road that curves through the heart of the park. All around me were towering trees bathed in soft morning light. A cool breeze carried the calls of finches and the chittering of squirrels. It’s an area I come across every time I take that route, but it was transformed in that moment, in my own embrace of its beauty and its mystery and its sounds. My mind was clear and my ears were open. After I continued on, the only thought I had was, “Somehow, I got tricked into a cathedral on a Sunday.” Maybe that’s what I’m seeking always: to find the quiet places that take me out of myself and further into myself, the beautiful natural spaces where I hope God lives and speaks.

So, It’s Non-Religious Religion in Church That’s Not Church?

“I think there is no suffering greater than what is caused by the doubts of those who want to believe…What people don't realize is how much religion costs. They think faith is a big electric blanket, when of course it is the cross. It is much harder to believe than not to believe.” – Flannery O’Connor

Apart from what you see here on the DB, Logan and I are friends who still talk about religion and belief quite often. We do so in funny and serious ways. He also knows what love I harbor for Flannery O’Connor, so he sent me the quote above. I guess it worked, because I’m writing this. It’s also a chance for me to provide my own angle on Logan’s most recent post. Doubt and the ability or desire to believe is something I spend a lot of time wrestling with, which is what makes something like a “non-religious church” an issue for me, particularly for its shallow approach to something that is by its nature paradoxical and mysterious.

I think what we’ve got going here is a battle over terms, over the language of church and religion, which is no small battle as words are all we’ve got to explain what we’re doing. As Logan noted, Sunday Assembly hasn’t done away with religious structures even in their attempt to provide a secular alternative to “church.” This isn’t just another community organization we’re talking about here; otherwise, it wouldn’t have made the news. Rather, it’s an attempt to co-opt and then negate the mysterious connection afforded to us when we attempt to interact with the divine.

Before I go any further, I want to make clear that I’m not saying Sunday Assembly should go away, or that they are wrong in their approach. Do what you want. Being a good person is good. I generally acknowledge that how you choose to experience joy in community isn’t my business. What I’d like to say though, if SA is your cup of tea, is this: don’t cheat yourself.

Churchy Church

If we’re going to get at the contention of language presented by trying to separate what church is from what you want church to be, it begins with “feelings.” Church isn’t about making you feel good, which is what O’Connor is getting at in the quote above. Want proof? Christianity, at least, is a religion that houses an execution instrument at the front of, and on the tops of, its buildings. Granted, the effect has been lessened by its shallow usage and smothering frequency on everything from jewelry to coffee mugs, but still. This is a religion about the cross, and that’s not “feel-good.”

There is a public notion at large, one which SA bases itself upon, that being a good person and feeling good about it captures what church is about if you can so conveniently place the “God-talk” by the wayside. Wrong. Church isn’t about feeling good, it’s about confronting mystery and power, confronting a cross and all it represents, and wondering what you should do about it. When people reduce "church" to something you can do non-religiously, you're pigeon-holing religion into something devoid of mystery and power, which is antithetical to the origin of religion itself. The major religions negated by SA’s “feel good, do good” approach [and we’re going beyond Christianity here], and the organization of church as an extension, is about dealing with a truth and a reality which is, often, profoundly uncomfortable. You’re not all there is, how you “feel” isn’t really the center of anything, and what’s more, you’ve got to get over that and do some real work for others with a real eye towards love and obedience. And what makes groups like the SA so inept in their attempt to make a church is this: church is the place where you go to face that and fold yourself, along with your neighbor, into an attempt to live out those uncomfortable truths. Faith and belief are real concepts that those of us committed to living out religious truth must deal with, but church isn’t even really the place we go to do that. Faith, or even the longing for faith, is a foundation upon which church is built. Church is the second step in a religious process. So you can’t separate church from faith. Sorry.

Religion and Cost

This is where the language of struggle and the concept of belief as something painful come into play. O’Connor is right in that “religion costs.” It costs a great deal. I count myself among those who cry out for belief, wishing they had it in a way they used to or can only imagine now. And in my position, I do find it much harder to believe; yet I still strive for it. When confronted by the cross, I no longer truly know what to think or feel. But I don’t go to church to figure it out. That’s work for me to do, painful work, in which I grasp for something I believe truly matters and yet consistently avoids my longing, outstretched fingers. It’s work I do in silence, work I do with friends and family and mentors and professors, work I do in books and on paper and on an awesome blog called Disembodied Beard.

But church? That’s where I go to live out the parts I know are true and struggle to keep my heart and mind open to the parts I’m not sure about. Like, that if God exists, God is love. And love is hard. Loving God and loving neighbor aren’t any easier than loving in romantic or familial relationships. Church is where I learn how to live out that love, where I learn how to express religious truths that inherently speak power to action, where I bind together with a community to buckle down and get things done. Sometimes that makes me feel good, and sometimes it doesn’t. But my “feelies,” my “believies” (Logan already linked the best clip in his article, so go to it) aren’t a factor in all that. My actions are, and they’re predicated on my desire to know more about the divine and myself.

So, do what you want to feel joy, but don't confuse that with what church is supposed to do for you. Church is supposed to confront you with mystery and power and transform you, often in painful ways. And if you want to gather and sing songs and love each other, that’s great. Seriously, it’s great. The world would certainly be a better place if everyone did that. But that's not "church minus religion." That’s a club, and if that’s what you want, name it and own it.

It’s, Like, a Religion You Can Totally Buy, You Know?

Two comedians in London, England created a non-religion religion called Sunday Assembly. They wanted the feeling of religion without the God parts.

It's good to get together with people you might not otherwise meet and listen to music and maybe do a community project. That's what religion is about.

Right?

Theoretically I'm all for opportunities for people to take part in community, expand their horizons beyond their particular view, and get involved in their community. That's the opportunity Sunday Assembly is trying to provide. This is already being done in various ways by clubs, nonprofits, and community organizations already in existence, but if Sunday Assembly can attract people to what it offers, that's all to the good.

What bothers me, though, is the generalizing attitude toward religion among people quoted in the linked article. Those interviewed suggest that Sunday Assembly has isolated something about religion and offered it up to be practiced by secular people: church, you know, but without the hard religion parts.

Except they haven't jettisoned religion entirely.

Theology

The article claims "there's little God talk at Sunday Assembly." A member says they aren't out to critique or debunk religion. Pippa Evans, one of the group's two founders, says simply, "It's all the best bits of church, but with no religion and awesome pop songs." I'll admit, this is a refreshing change of pace from so-called New Atheist proselytizers like Christopher Hitchens and Richard Dawkins – especially Dawkins, with his half-baked philosophies and reductive fundamentalism.

That being said, while Ms. Evans may argue to the contrary, there is a theology at work behind the scenes at Sunday Assembly. The word "theology" simply means "God talk" (Theos: "God" + Logos: "Word" or "Talk"). Though the rejection of the divine may go unspoken at Sunday Assembly's meetings, this unspoken theological position is the grounding principle which speaks the group into existence. I found a short paragraph near the end of the story interesting. A New York chapter of Sunday Assembly has suffered a split over how much to emphasize their rejection of God. How much God talk is too much for a people who've rejected talk about God? Better hire a theologian to figure that one out. Maybe hire two.

Specifically

But I'm not a religionist. I'm a Christian. And as a Christian, all of the throwing around of the word "church" opens Sunday Assembly to critique.

Specifically troublesome is part of the quote from comedian Pippa Evans, above: "it's all the best bits of church." From what I can tell, "all the best bits" seem to be the parts that feel good. The word "feel," or a form of it, appears seven times in the roughly 920 word article. Often accompanying all of this feeling are references to belief (also appearing seven times).

Another comedian, Louis CK, has something to say about beliefs. Namely, that we hold "believies" that make us feel good just for having them and then there's the way we actually live.

I suppose it's an indictment of the Church in the West that the generalities Sunday Assembly isolates from the experience of church is "believing things," "doing good," and "feeling good." But, religion cannot be practiced generally, it must be practiced specifically. It must not simply be believed, it must primarily be lived. The best of Christian practice does not call people of faith in Christ to strive toward a poorly defined ideal of cultural “goodness" or to consume the good feelings that may come from being in community. No, a Christian is called to become a servant, to become not more but less, so that the mystery of grace may increase in one's life and work.

I can see why Sunday Assembly hasn't repackaged this bit of church. It doesn't necessarily feel good. It downplays the ever-present "Self," so precious to us, in favor of servitude to the neighbor and to God.

That this call to become less embraces death makes the glossing over of the particularities of church even more predictable in a culture that worships at the altar of eternal vitality. Indeed, to lay down one's life is what leads to a becoming in the self that is greater than servanthood. But only after becoming empty shall one be filled.

Believe what you want though, you know. I don't want to push my beliefs on you. It's not like it matters or whatever.

The Valley

There was a wide valley that contained within it two towns. One town lay by a lake. The other lay by a river. The two towns were separated by a great forest.

The people of the lake and the people of the river arrived in the valley together. Some of them settled by the lake. Some of them settled by the river.

The valley was a good place to live. The soil was good. The sun was warm. Clouds rolled over the mountains, visited the valley, and went on their way. The forest was alive and gave its game and supplies to the people of the valley. The water each town bordered brought great abundance upon the people.

The people of the lake built close to the shores. They worked the water in boats: casting nets, traveling across the lake, making wood into lumber, building roads through the town. They traded with each other. They shared meals and songs.

The people of the river built their town along the banks. They also cast nets, fished, accepted the gifts the flow the river brought with it. They built mills powered by the river, traveled down its waters, traded amongst each other, and shared meals and songs.

In the years following their founding in the valley, the two towns prospered equally. But they started to differ. The increase in the fortunes of the towns were discovered by the world outside the valley. Outsiders visited the town by the lake and the town by the river seeking trade and fulfilling curiosity.

The river brought newcomers as it flowed. The people of the river welcomed the others as the river flowed by just as they welcomed the gifts the river had given them before. They traded with the newcomers. They shared freely the gifts the river had brought. Some outsiders simply passed through, others saw that the town by the river was good and stayed. They were no longer outsiders, but people of the river as well. The outsiders brought change, new customs, new languages, and funny ways. It was not always easy for the river people to get along with the people who came from outside the valley. But the river had brought these guests just like it had brought abundance, and the river town celebrated its newfound abundance and its new friends.

The lake also attracted newcomers. Visitors traveled on the roads the lake people had built. Some came only to visit, and to trade. Others, though, saw the goodness of the lake. They wished to cast nets, to fish, to travel across the waters and to share meals and songs. And so they aimed to build on the shores of the lake, as the people before them had done, and to become lake people themselves. But the first lake people grew jealous. They coveted their lake and its riches. They looked at the roads they had built and resented that others would use them. The newcomers were foreign and different. They spoke different languages, sang different songs, ate different food, and caused difficulties for the lake people.

The people of the lake set up tolls on their roads to extract wealth from newcomers. They claimed not only the shores but also the lake itself and all its riches as their own and no one else’s. Their stories became stories of their right to dominate the lake, the roads, and the forest. They began to claim that the valley was their valley alone. The good soil was theirs. The warm sun was theirs. The clouds did not visit the valley itself, but the people of the lake instead. The songs the lake people sang over meals were angry songs. They cast out the newcomers they could, and insulted those they could not.

Fourth of July

Independence Day was just three days ago. Summer holidays are kind of different from winter holidays. Something about the heat kind of gets inside you. Summer holidays are all about spreading out, getting out of your place. We have big, outdoor get-togethers that mostly involve eating something that was cooked outside.

For Independence Day we hang red, white, and blue decorations around. We eat off of red, white, and blue plates, and wipe yellow mustard off our faces with red, white, and blue napkins. We pay a little bit more attention to our red, white, and blue flag that is a symbol of our country – of the United States. We pause and reflect on what that flag stands for. We ask, why do we continue to raise it and what does it say when we do?

One of the things we do on Independence Day is honor the veterans who have given their lives to service, who have lost their lives in battle, and who struggle with coming home. Some of them sit right here with us today, whether physically or in our memory. On Independence Day we also honor other Americans who have given their lives to make America great for all people. We honor women who struggled all over the country for the right to vote, we honor those who sat at lunch counters, and on busses, and marched for equality, we honor those who fight for the right of all to love and marry who they will.

America exists somewhere in the forest between the two towns in the story I began with today. And on Independence Day, of all days, I think it’s worth asking, which town are we?

It’s a very simple story – I know – and it misses all of the complex issues that are a part of living in this country. But I want to say that we are not one town or the other. Instead we are in the forest, in the valley. The forest is the complexity we face together. America is not one thing or another, not one town or another, but since the beginning has been attempting to see itself through the trees.

Our red, white, and blue flag, for its part, stands for many things. It stands for liberty, freedom, independence, sacrifice, generosity, speech, openness, equality, and opportunity. I am sure you can think of more. The red, white, and blue flag has flown over this country for more than two centuries and it has seen all of these values expressed every day. Unfortunately, it has also seen us fall short of those values, fail to live up to them, deny them to others. Here at home, the red, white, and blue flag has flown over slavery, the civil war, Japanese internment, segregation, racism, and homophobia. Abroad the flag has flown over war, colonialism, and terror.

The flag is a symbol as complicated as America itself, not just for Americans but also for those outside of America. We are truly in the trees.

Beyond the Valley

I love America. I love the flag and much of what it stands for. I love America’s energy, dynamism, its multiple stories, peoples, backgrounds, religions, and races. I love the history and the people who have fought in various ways for the ideas that America stands for. But in the passage for today, Jesus calls us beyond the valley, though it may be good.

We are called by Christ, as individuals, beyond our own selfish interests. We are called to go beyond the bounds of loyalty to our families. We are called to go beyond the limited local view of our communities. We are called beyond even our nation, to see ourselves as part of a world of others.

The good rain, Christ says, falls on you, and your neighbor, and your enemy alike. It pays no heed to you, your family, your city, or your nation. The rain does not only visit our valley, but the clouds also roll beyond it.

We are called to do likewise.

There are interpreters of the Beatitudes – the section of the sermon from which this passage is taken – that argue the demands Christ makes are actually impossible. They say that the point Jesus was trying to make was that because we fall short of the perfection of the divine, we need grace. They argue that it is only because of grace that we are even capable of striving toward these lofty ideals, and that when we fail, grace will catch us, bear us up, and allow us to try again.

Christ says that we are not only called to go beyond our valley to embrace people like us. We are called to love even our enemies. The red, white, and blue flag of America symbolizes many things, but loving our enemies is not one of them.

That symbol. There. The cross... symbolizes love for the enemy, the stranger, the immigrant. It has no color and stands for no nation. It flings out its arms wide beyond the limited valley and calls us forward to it. It symbolizes the grace necessary to go beyond the valley ourselves.

The rain falls beyond the valley, and a forest grows there as well. We may not know it as well as our own. It may be harder to find our way. We may even be entirely lost there. But by the grace of God, the command of Christ, and with the courage of the spirit we are called to go.

Fragments

Some fragments from a sermon:

Freedom

As followers of Jesus, what are we free from and what are we free to? We’re free, first of all, from fear. We’re free from the story our culture tells that we should strive toward power and meaning. We’re free from a story that tells us that in the beginning and the end we are individuals, that we depend on nothing but ourselves, that we write our own stories, and that we ought to make sure we have enough power over others and our lives to determine the final meaning not only of our stories but the stories of those who surround us.

All of this is revealed by Christ to be an illusion. Jesus, in faith, submits himself to relationship. He passionately opens himself to the divine, to his neighbor, to the world, even to his enemy, and shows us how really to be human. And Paul argues in the passage for today that we are free to do the same: “serve each other through love.”

Idolatry

For Paul, to live for the flesh, rather than for the Spirit, is to seek to establish one’s own life and worth externally, rather than recognizing one’s inherent worth as a created being in relationship with the divine. So he throws out a list of all of the external ways people try to use to justify their existence. This doesn’t mean that things outside yourself aren’t important. They may be very important. But, whatever it may be, it should serve something greater and not be raised to be the greatest.

These means by which we try to find meaning for our lives may not always come to the point of idolatry. But often they do. I’m referring to anything that dominates people and compromises their freedom, their ability to live with faith in true relationship with themselves, their neighbor, and the divine.

Both faith and idolatry begin with the recognition that to be human is to be a contingent being – that is, a creature that depends on something other than itself, alone, for its survival. But faith differs from idolatry in that it lives every moment as if this were true. Faith submits itself to God and other human beings, even to creation. And thus, “to faith” is to live freely within the contingent reality of existence. Idolatry, however, refuses to accept the truth of our need to depend on God, neighbors, and creation. And so – though it may feel and look like freedom – idolatry finds itself grasping at anything and everything that passes by – it grasps at the flesh, and thereby it loses its freedom to all of the external things of life.

Violence

Fear drives what I reckon to be the greatest idolatry active today: violence. The resort to violence places trust not in God, but rather puts its hope in our effort alone. Violence denies that, like Christ, we ought to submit ourselves to God, to each other, even to our enemies. It denies the power of resurrection as well, that God’s victory does not look like what we expect. To those who have faith in violence, the idea that Jesus’ crucifixion is a way to participate in freedom and to really live is foolishness pure and simple.

We, perhaps foolishly, are called to practice Christ’s faith, by ceasing to constantly try to take ownership of “the flesh,” the stuff of life. Instead we stand in the Spirit with empty hands, and submit ourselves to each other, to creation, and to God. Because of what Christ taught, how he lived, how he died, and that he rose again, we are free from fear and we are free to live foolishly.

Foolishness

And what happens when you live foolishly, unburdened by idolatry, free in the spirit of Christ? Paul says that you will live with love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. You might come to a little church in the center of the city to see friends, hear jazz, sing songs, eat donuts, and talk. You might serve breakfast way too early in the morning to a bunch of homeless folks, or make lunches and serve them at the park. You might end up raising funds for windows, weeding a garden, or helping design a bridal room. You might contribute bras to be strewn across the altar and donated to women in Africa. Or you might donate spa treatments, of all things, for boys and girls locked in cycles of gang violence.

Whatever you do, if you live and die with Christ, these things, and not fear, will be how you live. You may not be lead to live just as the world expects. It sounds ridiculous. And maybe it is.

May you be so blessed to be seen by the world as a fool.

Definitely Lost, Maybe a Mystic

The BBC recently covered a New York state retiree, Phillip Patterson, who wrote out the entirety of the King James 1611 Bible by hand. 788,000 words, penned with care and purpose. It’s an astounding story, especially given that Mr. Patterson doesn’t consider himself that religious. Still, when you watch the video (and you should watch the video), it’s hard to picture him as anything but religious, at least in the sense of one being open to the greater mystery of life and meaning. This is where the language of religion, and the word “religion” in particular, fails to do much good -- but that’s another post.

Patterson says “I wondered what was in the Bible. And I knew I didn’t have the… intellectual bandwidth to read it and retain it.” He’s a man searching for knowledge and understanding of a text that speaks so much to the nature of what it means to be in this world. It’s especially interesting that he labored over a text which he feels “is not accepting of [his] lifestyle” as a bisexual man with AIDS. It’s impossible for me to see his work as anything but a sacred pursuit of divine knowledge. When you hear him say, “I would sometimes be sitting and writing, and all of the sudden, it’s like the top of my head opens up and I understand, suddenly, how small our beliefs are. I’m not a slave to what’s written in that book. It’s like everything else in life. Do you believe everything everybody tells you?”, you know - Phillip Patterson, the not-so-religious man who happened to write out the Bible, is a mystic.

As I revisit this man’s story over and over, I am continually struck by the instant kinship I feel with him. He, too, is a seeker, a wanderer in the Cloud of Unknowing. Patterson is working towards knowing by not knowing, by opening himself up to possibility through an experience with the unfamiliar. I feel keenly that the mystic pursuit is a path by which those of us who find ourselves wrapped in lost-ness can emerge into some of the richest parts of our religious traditions. I suppose it’s easy for any person to feel like they don’t fit the movement of their times (the zeitgeist doesn’t have handles, man), and this wanting for place, for name, for identity, can become suffocating. Though when you look at someone like Patterson, or to writings of the past from the likes of Julian of Norwich or Pseudo-Dionysius, you begin to realize that being lost doesn’t have to be a terrible thing. Rather, it can be the very circumstance needed to encounter that which is true, divine, and lovely.

It leaves me lamenting the passing of the mystic as a vocation. The work of pursuing mystery, residing in thought and contemplation in a non-academic, non-analytic way, is both critical and something I feel drawn toward. In some ways, the vocation still exists; I could pack my stuff, head to a monastery, and hermit it up. But for those of us who naturally lean toward relationship and practicality, we are left wondering how to encounter meaning in the felt aimlessness of our journey.

The quick answer for many is “religion.” But, as we saw with Phillip Patterson, those structures and beliefs represented by the word “religion” aren’t for everyone, and they’re not always for me, either. This is where mindfulness practice provides solace. Using physical action to become present, to encourage myself to inhabit my space as wholly as possible at any one moment despite all the confusion and fear that rises from the feelings of not belonging, is to participate in the idea of the modern mystic. It’s what Patterson was doing all along. Still, even the practice must be handled with grace and patience, as being present is difficult; the awareness of how un-present we tend to be is actually hilarious.

I’m lost, and the possible solution involves holding my beliefs with care and examining them, noticing their faults, their quirks, and their value. Mindful awareness, the act of resting in what is, can lead to uncovering and dusting off the beliefs I hold – about religion, about myself, about everything – and thereby allow me to put my tension and my hope in conversation. In those moments, I can begin to notice how “small my beliefs really are” and how much potential resides in the looking, in the lost places, in the act of noticing my breath even when I can’t get a grasp on anything else. I, too, can become a mystic by resting in the notion that knowing can come from not knowing, and that truly, "not all those who wander are lost"

The Poor Don't Need PB&J

Since moving to Denver I've been active in a church called AfterHours Denver (AHD). It's weird. We meet in a bar three times a month for fellowship and to make peanut butter and jelly sandwiches to be included in sack lunches. Every day AHD and its partner groups meet in Civic Center Park to distribute up to 150 lunches to the people who congregate there or who are passing through. Communion is also offered in the form of bread and grape juice.

That's it. It's weird. There's no building. There's no paid staff except Jerry. There's service and there's fellowship in the name of Christ.

A common criticism of AHD often comes in the form of a question: "What are you doing to address the root causes of homelessness? The poor don't need a peanut butter and jelly sandwich." It is an important question. It is a question that I, myself, have asked. It is also a question that can be cynical. When I have heard it, it is often delivered in a tone that says, "so what?"

The answer is, 'nothing.' "What are you doing to address the root causes of homelessness?" Realistically? "Nothing." So, if the answer is nothing, then who cares? Why continue to do it? I mean, other than the fact that most people like to have something to eat for lunch?

What I intend below is a quick look at AHD and its mission as a movement of Christian hope.

Hope

I follow Soren Kierkegaard's (SK) expansive treatment of hope in his book Works of Love. In it he deals with hope not as a feeling but as action. For SK, hope is "to relate oneself expectantly to the possibility of the good" (249). Importantly, SK points out that hope cannot be put to shame. Even if what is hoped for does not come to pass, still, hope remains intact. This is because the action of hoping for the possibility of the good, a good which may not exist in present time, itself creates the good (296). In the face of crushing poverty this is perhaps not quite satisfying. But hopefully the sandwich adds some tangible satisfaction.

Hebrews 11:1 teaches that faith is the constancy for what is hoped for. To ask the question alone, "do the poor need a PB&J," and not to participate in hope is to hope nothing at all, is to lose faith, and indeed is to sink into despair (248).

Going out into the park every day, sustained by the Spirit, in communion with homeless women and men, springs out of a constancy of hope. It is a work of love from love, an act of faith from faith. Far from doing nothing, this daily action creates out of nothing a new reality, community, and awareness.

Consciousness

Without public meetings among the poor, the root causes of homelessness will not be addressed. Awareness is the very beginning of the movement to address social problems. In a society in which most wish not to see the poor, in which individuals dismiss an area as dirty or off limits because homeless women and men sleep in doorways -- some actively go to the poor, ask them to gather together, and interact with them as individual human beings and blessed creations of a loving God.

The best case scenario is that those who gather are brought to a new consciousness. They come to be awake. If the Spirit of the divine is involved in the least then their being is transferred into a state of aletheia: unconcealedness, disclosure, all truth. Their world experiences an apocálypsis, not a literal destruction but a revelation that destroys preconceived notions, an un-covering, an end to a time in which the reality of the world as it exists was hidden to them. They may experience a re-birth and perhaps take a step on the road toward Christian Discipleship. They may ask, "why do these conditions of poverty exist," "why have I not come to terms with them until now," "why have they been hidden from me?" This new awareness may lead toward action addressing homelessness itself.

Worst case scenario? Someone who's hungry gets something to eat.