When religion leaves faith behind

(Photo by Pete Bannan)

Many people today categorize themselves as spiritual but not religious. What I hear them saying is they believe in God and spirituality, but many forms of religion these days take them the opposite way.

Many practices of religion get in the way of living in a truly loving, spiritual way, and people feel forced to choose between faith and religion. It’s good to remind ourselves that the two are not the same.

Let’s define faith as the Spirit in which we’re made to live; the love from which and for which we are created; the values embedded in the foundation of our spirituality.

Faith centers us in the truth that we love God by loving all our neighbors as ourselves, caring for those who are struggling, seeing the image of the creator equally in every person, following the call to work for justice.

Religion is how we put that Spirit and those values into practice. It’s supposed to be the expression and implementation of those values in our individual and collective lives; sadly, it often is not.

As we know, religion easily gets detached from the faith in which it’s meant to be grounded. It rejects the Spirit and values it’s supposed to embody, choosing to go a different way.

Making religion align with faith

We don’t need to look hard for examples: culture wars, holy wars, crusades, inquisitions, burnings at the stake, Nazi extermination camps, white churchgoers firebombing Black churches, KKK crosses lit in Jesus’ name, Capitol rioters carrying Bibles and rosaries.

Religion gets reduced to theological propositions about who’s in and who’s out, who deserves unconditional love, who should be attacked. Religion is turned into a wall, a weapon, a rejection of not only God’s children but the God who created them in the multiplicity of the divine image and likeness.

Prophets of all ages and all religions call people back to the foundation of their faith when religious expression becomes unmoored and needs to repent and change.

Jesus embodied this prophetic tradition. He called out those who turned religion into rejection. He felt a harsh backlash from those intent upon defending their religion at the expense of their faith.

He reminded the religiously observant that faith isn’t about following rules and laws and theologies; instead, love and love alone fulfills all that God seeks from us.

That is our faith. That also should be our religion.

We’re imperfect people, so our faith and our religion will always be an imperfect match. That’s a given. But we’re called to be vigilant in seeing how we can make our religion align more closely with our faith.

New ways of being faithful

Our prophetic role is to challenge religious expressions – including our own – that pull us away from faith toward something else: power, control, self-importance, domination, ego, judgement, privilege, bullying, ostracizing, self-aggrandizing, rejection, and fighting.

The letter attributed to James reminds us that if our religion doesn’t put our faith into practice, it’s thoroughly lifeless. Or, to paraphrase Paul, religion that’s lacking in love amounts to nothing more than noise. It leads nowhere.

Any religion separated from faith is going to wither and die – and it should. We see this happening in so many expressions of religion today. It’s a necessary step. These forms of religious expression are withering away so something more faithful can be reborn in their place – the cycle of death and resurrection.

There’s the marvelous line in the gospel of Luke about leaving the spiritually dead to bury their dead. We’re at that moment. Leave those deadened by these forms of religion to bury them.

Instead, let faith inspire yet another time of reforming in ways both old and new — new ways for this old faith to thrive, new places to offer healing and discovery and growth, new gatherings where we can be comforted and challenged and transformed.

New ways of being faithful.

Who needs a haircut?

hair with sunglasses

While sheltering at home, folks have shared funny memes imaging how we’ll look when we’re able to get our hair cut and styled again.

Isn’t it telling that we’re so conditioned to think about our looks, even during a pandemic?

In many cultures, appearances receive overriding importance, especially for women. Images set the bar for what we’re supposed to look like if we want to be accepted.

Of course, those images that are enhanced and manipulated. Nobody actually looks that way in real life, not even the models and actors.

In 2006, I covered a baseball game at Great American Ball Park attended by Tom Hanks, Ron Howard and Dennis Miller. They were doing a ballpark tour for Hanks’ birthday. They agreed to chat with reporters.

The first thing that got my attention when we met was how without makeup, they looked liked everyone else. They had age spots and bald spots and wrinkles and unruly hair.

Just like me.

Perhaps our time away from hair stylists can remind us that we worry too much about our appearances and those of others. Consider it a home-schooling lesson in how we mistakenly associate looks with value.

We tend to look positively on people who wear expensive clothes, drive exotic cars, live in big houses, and have immaculate skin, teeth and hair. Appearances sway our judgments.

The same works in reverse. When we see someone who doesn’t meet those standards, we might think less of them. And of ourselves as well.

It’s subliminal and insidious, and it pulls us away from the truth about ourselves: we’re all beloved children of God, just as we are. We lose sight of that when we judge by any other standard.

I help an inner-city church with its summer program for children from families struggling to make ends meet. The church serves breakfast and lunch – for some of the kids, the best meals they’ll get that day – and has activities in-between.

Each day starts with the kids gathering in the church itself for a message from the pastor, who reminds them they are beautiful and loved, just as they are. And nothing can ever change that.

These kids hear a different message every time they watch television or see an ad online. They’re told in subtle ways that they don’t measure up because they don’t meet the standard in front of their eyes.

They need to be reminded many times every day that those advertising images aren’t real and the messages they hear are wrong. They need to be told again and again that love and value aren’t dependent upon fancy clothes or expensive makeup.

Clothes are only clothes. Wrinkles are only wrinkles. Hair is only hair. None of them has anything to do with our innate value.

Remember that the next time you look in the mirror and fixate on a wrinkle, a bald spot or an out-of-place curl. That person you see? Beautiful, just as you are.

And so is everyone else. No matter how they look. No matter how long and unruly their hair.

(photo courtesy of pexels.com)

Tomorrow: The lie of control








Living in liminal spaces

searching gfdnova1 at creative commons

I watched my parents drive away in the station wagon after dropping me off at college the first time, and I knew every part of my life was about to change.

Instead of living in my house with my family, I was sharing a small cinderblock dorm room with a roommate I’d never met. I shared a bathroom with the dorm wing and ate in a cafeteria.

Those first few weeks, I carried a map to find my way to the next class – I had nightmares for decades about being loss on campus!

It was a deeply unsettling transition, something that Richard Rohr refers to as a liminal space – a time and place where we’re challenged to think and act in new ways.

Moving into liminal space is never comfortable, but it’s essential if we’re to grow. The only way we move toward God and each other is by stepping outside our comfort zones.

The alternative is to stagnate and never know what it means to truly live.

We’re all in a liminal space now with the pandemic. A virus has challenged so many of our assumptions about ourselves – what we need, what really matters – and about our society as well.

What’s so unsettling is that we’re moving away from patterns of thinking and acting that provided a sense of comfort and predictability. When we can anticipate what comes next, we feel more in control.

In a sense, we’ve lost our security blanket. And we say: Now what?

Liminal times invite us to look beyond our limiting patterns. We have to leave our bubbles in order to see what’s outside of them.

This is especially true in spirituality. We’re raised in traditions that are sometimes very limited and confining. Over time, we feel ourselves outgrowing the small theological boxes, but it’s disconcerting because it’s all we know.

How do we replace them? What do we replace them with? Can we grow outside a bubble while still being friends with others inside it? The answers aren’t apparent right away.

It takes great courage to step outside our confines and become a seeker, but that’s what it takes. I love the line in the gospels reminding us that if we seek, we will find, but we must leave the safety of certitude and go look for God’s presence in unfamiliar places.

We will find – that’s the promise – but first we have to seek, even though that part of the equation is always unsettling.

As Rohr says, “It’s no surprise then that we generally avoid liminal space. Much of the work of authentic spirituality and human development is to get people into liminal space and to keep them there long enough that they can learn something essential and new.”

The longer we spend in liminal space, the more acclimated we become. We relax into it a little more. We feel ourselves growing in important ways that bring us more peace and joy, and we want to keep growing. We’re glad to have moved away from our old ways.

Let us use our liminal time well. May we let it teach us what we need to know. May it show us how we need to grow.

May we move closer to the re-creative God who wants to make all things new and better, including us. The God who invites us into those liminal spaces and reminds us that She’s there with us the whole time, so there’s no reason to be afraid.

(Photo courtesy of gfdnova1 @creativecommons.org)


No going back

Personal Transformation

Several of my friends were cured of cancer. They describe how every part of their lives was turned inside-out during treatment. They asked God to help them through it. They longed for everything to return to normal.

Once healed, their lives were never the same. The experience changed them significantly. What once seemed so important was now unsatisfying. They experienced life differently.

When they realized there was no going back to how things were before cancer, they went through depression and grieved the loss of their former lives. Some of them got angry at God.

Eventually, they made peace with their circumstances and set about transforming their lives into something new and better – more real, more alive, more Spirit-filled.

Although not thankful for the illness, they recognized that it interrupted their lives in needed ways. They felt more peace and joy. Their relationships – including with God – grew richer and deeper and more satisfying.

I’ve thought about those friends as we navigate the coronavirus pandemic. In many ways, our lives also have been turned inside-out. We yearn for things to go back to how they were a few months ago.

They can’t. Nor should they.

The interruptions provide a chance to examine at our lives and make needed changes. This applies not only to our individual lives, but to our faith communities and our societies as well.

The pandemic can teach us necessary lessons and become an impetus for changes that make us better.

Our challenge is to take a clear-eyed look at how our lives need to be refocused, how our faith communities need to adapt, and how the systems and values of our society must be significantly reformed.

For the next week, we’ll consider some of those areas to spark thoughts that lead us to transformation.

We can’t go back to the way things were three months ago – it’s not possible. Nor should we try.

Instead, we can embrace this opportunity to grow into people and societies that do a better job of caring for ourselves and all God’s children. We have an opportunity to grow closer to one another and to God, who yearns for us to experience the gift of life and the joy of love more deeply.

Let us make the journey together.

Tomorrow: Learning from our restlessness

(Image “Personal Transformation” courtesy of GroggyFroggy @creativecommons.org)

Burning rivers and God’s garden

Cuyahoga pollution

The Cuyahoga River caught fire in 1969, blazing for two hours and focusing attention on my hometown. That moment became a flashpoint in the environmental movement.

Since the 1800s, industries had set up along the river and used it as a dumping ground for hazardous waste. The river turned orange and caught fire more than a dozen times. Many other polluted rivers in the Midwest caught fire as well.

Burning rivers weren’t the only issue. Steel mills released chemicals into the air that stung the eyes and left an acrid taste in mouths – I remember it well.

And it wasn’t just a Midwest problem. Cities around the world were trapped in a brown, deadly haze of smog. Rural areas had groundwater contaminated by dumped chemicals.

We’d made a mess of the world.

This month marks the 50th anniversary of Earth Day, a good time to remember our connection to each other and all creation and to recommit ourselves to doing the job God has given us.

What is that job? Our faith traditions are clear. We’re tasked with caring for all creation and each other.

Genesis reminds us that diversity and relationship are expressions of the divine nature itself.

One parabolic story reminds that we’re created from the same stuff as the earth and each other, so we must never think of ourselves as separate from anyone or anything else.

Creation is seamless.

The Eden story depicts God putting humans in the garden and giving us the responsibility “to cultivate and care for it.” The garden isn’t ours; we’re just the gardeners.

As the story also reminds us, when we refuse to accept our role and we instead act as though we own everything, we commit the foundational sin and everything goes to hell.

The story of Noah’s ark reminds us that we’re responsible for caring for the animals, which are part of God’s all-inclusive covenant that endures today.

Fast-forward to Jesus, who clearly loved creation. He went into nature to hear God’s voice. His stories compared God’s kingdom to seeds and plants. He marveled at the flowers and birds.

We experience God through creation, so long as we recognize its innate holiness and treat it with the required reverence.

Sadly, we’ve often done the opposite. Self-absorption leads us to monetize everything. People are treated as commodities to be manipulated for gain or sold as slaves. The earth is parceled and plundered and used up, then discarded.

Everything becomes disposable, including the garden we’re meant to tend and the animals we’re meant to protect and the people we’re meant to love.

No! Those who hear God’s invitation to be gardeners must respond.

After the Cuyahoga caught fire in 1969, people responded. The EPA was formed a year later with strong bipartisan support, and laws were passed to provide clean air and water.

Some people want to turn our rivers orange again, make the air brown, and pollute the ground with toxic substances. They’re willfully ignorant of global warming’s damage.

Our faith requires us to act. This month, we not only celebrate creation, we also recommit ourselves to working with God to nurture it and protect it from further harm. It’s our assigned job.

As Pete Seeger puts it: “God’s counting on me. God’s counting on you.”

(photo from Cleveland Museum of Natural History)

Choosing our leaders wisely

boat leading pexels

What makes for a good leader?

It’s an opportune time to think about leadership as we respond to the pandemic and its effects. We’ll be leaning on leaders as we get through the challenges and rebuild.

Leaders at various levels – political, social, religious – have shown contrasting  styles and characteristics. They have different ways and different motivations.

What qualities do we want in them? What types of leaders should we choose going forward?

Effective leaders share important characteristics:

1. They’re in it for others, not themselves. Some people move into leadership to bolster their ego, increase their power, enrich their holdings. They make leadership about what they want instead of what others need. By contrast, servant-leaders focus on the common good. They empower and encourage. They put others’ needs ahead of their own. They accomplish a lot because they don’t need credit or acclaim.

2. They lean on experts and people who offer wise counsel. Every leader faces challenges outside their realm of experience. Effective ones take advice. They study how previous leaders dealt with similar challenges and learn from their successes and mistakes.

3. They learn from their own mistakes. Every leader makes them; good ones recognize them, take responsibility for them, and adjust course. Leaders who refuse to see their mistakes repeat them endlessly, to everyone’s detriment.

4. They understand truthfulness matters. When people sense leaders aren’t being honest, they lose credibility, which makes matters worse.

5. They try to lead everyone, not only their supporters. The best leaders at all levels work tirelessly to bridge gaps and build consensus. They understand that a house divided against itself cannot stand.

6. They can calm, inspire and focus people during hard times. They don’t have to be the most loquacious; sincerity and honesty go a long way. So do compassion and humility.

I’m sure you can identify other important qualities for leadership as well. Our challenge is to get a clear vision of what we want from our leaders and choose ones who embody those qualities.

We need to look at ourselves as well.

Each of us is a leader – in our families, neighborhoods, workplaces, faith communities, circle of friends, social media groups. We need to embody the qualities we think are important for leaders.

As Matthew Fox puts it: “The times do not allow anyone the luxury of waiting around for others to lead.”

The leadership we choose, and the leadership we provide, will go a long way in deciding what we become.

(photo courtesy of Miguel Á. Padriñán @pexels.com)

Our fixed points

Starry sky

Last night gave us a gloriously warm spring evening. We lit a fire as the sun set and poured a glass of wine. One by one, the stars and planets began to dot the deepening sky.

Saturn appeared first, a bright point in the southwest sky hanging above the treetops. Soon, Orion made its appearance. Eventually, the sky was filled with all these dots of light.

It was very soothing to do something that we humans have done as long as we’ve been around – light a fire for warmth, look up at the sky for inspiration and wonder and a sense of connectedness to our vast and amazing universe.

People have done the same thing since our earliest times. We’ve gathered and gazed up during the most horrific times in human history – wars, natural disasters, pandemics.

We’ve looked up at the stars from all regions of Earth, including the vast oceans and lakes, where stars are necessary to navigate — fixed points in the darkness that lead us where we need to go in unsettling times.

Times like now.

May we be reminded to look for the fixed points in our lives – the people who love us, the faith that directs us, the miracle all around us and within us that inspires and reassures us that we belong.

Let’s also aspire to be fixed points for one another, helping each other get through the times, just as we always have.

As Alexis Castle put it in her graduation speech: “There’s some people who are so much a part of us, they’ll be with us no matter what. They are our solid ground. Our North Star. And the small clear voices in our hearts that will be with us always.”

Through their voices we experience another Voice, the One who creates fixed points to guide us. Our role is to look for the light and listen for the voice.

(photo courtesy of https://www.pexels.com/@philippedonn)

Need to work on that schedule

weekly planner

Here’s my typical daily schedule now that I’m working from home:

4:15 a.m.

Wake up, start thinking about everything, spend next hour restlessly trying to get brain to turn off and go back to sleep.

9 a.m.

Wake up again, put on pot of coffee.

9-10 a.m.

Drink two cups of black coffee, read daily reflections, make small talk with God, resolve to be my best self and bring grace into the world in some way today, feel inspired and encouraged.

10:01 a.m.

Log onto news apps. Read latest developments. Begin to worry.

10:15 a.m.

Log onto work site. See avalanche of emails, Zoom meeting invitations and Slack communications. Feel like balloon losing air.

11 a.m.

Realize I need to make trip to grocery store. Worry it might expose me to virus.


Catch up on what world leaders are doing and saying. Worry about world leaders.

1 p.m.

Worry about how family members are doing.

1:01 p.m.

Worry about how church members are doing.

1:03 p.m.

Worry about what the world will look like when it returns to some normalcy.

1:04 p.m.

Worry about what new normal will look like.

It’s so exhausting!

I’ve decided some schedule adjustments are in order. My new Lenten resolution is to create space for the following activities:

Stop thinking, take a few deep breaths, let brain relax.

Remind myself yet again that today is God’s greatest gift, meant to be enjoyed and lived rather than wasted with worry.

Actually listen to other people instead of being slightly distracted by worry.

Text, message, call or email one person to see how they’re doing.

Spend a few minutes watching birds eat from feeder behind house.

Notice grass getting greener each day.

Get out and exercise. Smile at people I pass. Notice the flowers and the trees blossoming and budding. Be thankful I get to enjoy another amazing spring.

See if there’s some way I can help another person who needs something.

Most of all, say my favorite prayer, again and again:

“Hey God, I know you’re paying attention and taking notes. As you can tell, I could use a little help right about now – we all could. Thank you in advance!”

Trust that help will come. Try to recognize and use it.

(photo courtesy of Plush Design Studio@pexels.com)


Nadia, nerves and just being you

Nadia video

Nadia Bolz-Weber is one of my favorites, a Lutheran pastor who uses words beautifully, shares struggles intimately, and puts flesh and bones on the faith to which I aspire.

So I was excited to be part of a church group that heard her speak two years ago. I expected to hear the Nadia who comes across so polished in video reflections put together with a professional filming crew and as many takes as necessary to get it perfect.

I was taken aback when she began to speak. Instead of smooth and professional, she was really nervous!

Nadia was starting a new phase of ministry, moving from pastoring a church to reaching people on a bigger scale. Her appearance that night amounted to dipping a toe in uncharted waters.

In many ways, she was out of her element. It showed at the outset.

Her posture was stiff. She looked down a lot. Her sentences were punctuated with “ums.” I never expected that. After all, Nadia has given countless sermons and talks before huge audiences.

My surprise soon turned to appreciation.

I’m always nervous before speaking in public, even when it’s with a loving faith community. Her halting words made me feel so much better about myself – she gets a case of the nerves, too. It also made her more human to me.

She began reading passages from her next book, which is about grace, my favorite subject. She relaxed. Her sentences were beautiful, powerful, uplifting. She connected with us.

She concluded with a long question-and-answer, trading life stories with anyone who raised a hand. Nadia was funny, outspoken, humble, thought-provoking, compassionate, affirming, with an occasional cuss word mixed in.

Her nervous-to-normal appearance has been on my mind with all the unfamiliarity we’ve been plunged into. It’s difficult to feel comfortable as a pastor, parent, partner, employee, friend and neighbor when the ground rules and formats for how we interact are in flux.

As an achiever, I want to do it all well, all the time, even as guardrails are removed from our relational roads and there’s more than a little fear of plunging off the side.

So, I’m reminded of Nadia.

Her unintended gift that night was reminding us that it’s OK to be nervous. We all feel unbalanced and unsure in new settings. The trick is to eventually relax into the moment and just be who you are.

That’s what people want from you, what they need from you – to be you, as best you can, in the moment. It’s what they love about you.

It’s all God wants and expects and loves about you, too.

(photo from Nadia’s 3-minute “Cloudy with a Chance of Grace” reflection on YouTube that speaks to the current moment)




Every breath we share


An oxygen mask helped Wilma Jean take her final breaths in a nursing home room that was festooned with reminders of her life’s passions.

On the wall to her right was a framed photo of her husband of 59 years, smiling gloriously as he crouched to plant a vegetable garden. Small, round photos of her seven children and five grandchildren decorated an adjacent wall.

Wilma Jean’s family held her hand and shared stories of her life. Like all of us, she had discouraging and frustrating times that turned out quite the opposite of what she intended.

What stood out, though, was how her family’s stories were more about something else. They recounted how she spent her life breathing life into everyone and everything around her.

We’re tempted to measure our lives by the number of years between our first breath and our last, but that completely misses the point. What matters – what makes a difference – is what we choose to do with the countless ones in-between.

There’s much more to this breathing thing.

The familiar creation story depicts God exhaling a breath of life into our lungs, sharing so intimately with each of us this divine, animating force that changes forms but never ends.

Breathing life into one another

The story also reminds us that God breathed life not only into us, but into all that’s around us. Plants inhale the carbon dioxide that we exhale, process it, and breathe out oxygen that we then inhale.

This sacred breathing cycle — all breathing together — sustains life.

And here’s the good stuff: From our first gulp of air we not only have the ability to breathe life into our atmosphere, but into each other as well. We can do what God does on a smaller scale, if we so choose, breathing life into others in ways big and small.

At Wilma Jean’s funeral, family members described how she shopped for Christmas gifts year-round so that everyone would have a big, personalized pile when the day came. She wanted everyone to know that they matter.

At an advanced age, she learned to work a computer so she could make individualized cards, another way of reminding everyone how they’re special and loved.

She literally birthed a family-community and breathed life into it continuously with a love that still abides and animates. With every breath they take, she continues to breathe through them, with them and in them.

This circle of life persists, uninterrupted and undiminished.

So, what about us? One of the defining questions for each of our lives is how we use our sacred, God-given breath.

Use each breath wisely and generously

Some people use it primarily on themselves, essentially wasting their breath. Others use it to belittle, bully and harm, wielding it like a storm wind that batters everyone and everything around them. They undermine relationship, family and community.

And then there are those who try their best to breathe life into the world. They become co-creators with God, building families and communities that endure.

None of us does this life-breathing thing perfectly, but that’s OK. What matters is our intention and commitment. There are many ways to do it.

We breathe a little more life into our world every time we plant a vegetable, care for an injured creature, or show a moment’s kindness to another person.

We breathe life into our world when we get involved in a movement to protect nature and nurture people, or when we defend those who are being mistreated or marginalized.

We breath life into our world when we’re committed to the hard work of creating and sustaining families, faith communities and societies.

A good starting point is to ask the One who gave us our first breath to show us how to use all the others wisely and generously, all the way to the time of our last one and beyond.

Let us breathe.