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.

The sacred invitation to dive in

My family rented a cottage near a lake each summer when I was a boy. After lunch each day, we’d walk down a road to the lake, peel off our shirts, kick off our flipflops and head for our assigned dock, ready to dive in.

The cold water jolted you the first time you went in. Usually, I needed time – and encouragement from those already in the water – to dive in.

Once wet, I didn’t want to get out.

That dock is a good metaphor for faith.

The Scriptures, traditions and liturgies of our various faiths are a platform to dive into the mystery, the presence, and the deep love of God. The platform always points us beyond itself.

Our faith isn’t about the dock, but where the dock wants to take us. Unfortunately, we can get so attached to the dock that we never dive from it. We never get wet.

Where the dock leads us

Instead, we stand on dock and speculate about the water below. We develop theological terms for the water and argue over which ones are most accurate.

Worse, we fall into the trap of fighting over who’s allowed on the dock and which diving forms are acceptable. Self-appointed guardians try to control access to the dock and reject anyone who doesn’t meet their criteria.

This is one main reason many people are turned off by organized religion – lots of standing around and arguing on the dock, not much actual swimming.

If you’re never going to get wet, what’s the point?

Jesus experienced the same thing. The self-appointed dock guardians of his time tried to keep certain people away – Samaritans, women, children, Gentiles, lepers, tax collectors, anyone who was different from them.

He ignored them, immersed himself in the water and invited others to join. If they were barred from the dock, he told them to wade in from the shore.

People recognized that unlike those who never left the dock, Jesus spoke with authority about the water. He was dripping wet! He swam the depths, experienced the currents, enjoyed the water’s delights.

He shared his experience of the water in such a way that others wanted to dive in, too. He spoke of living water available to everyone. Unlike the bone-dry people who never left the dock, he knew the water.

Everyone into the water

And he told us what it means to dive in.

See someone hungry? Dive into the moment and feed them.

Someone hurting? Dive into the situation and do something to help them heal.

See the injustice of someone being barred from the dock? Offer them a full and unencumbered path into the water.

See someone afraid of the water? Reach out a hand and offer to help them slowly wade in.

Swimming in this water means looking at ourselves, at others and the world through God’s eyes. We plunge into this water, and everything changes.

It doesn’t matter how we get into the water, only that we get wet. Once there, we let the living water comfort us, hold us, refresh us, and wrap us in its love.

And invite everyone else to swim with us, too.

Ready for change?

Whenever we make a major choice – an election, for instance – we create a possibility for change. Such a time is at hand. A long-awaited day has arrived in our deeply divided society.

We can keep going down the same dead-end path, or we can turn around and begin anew.

A lot of people are ready to chart a new course.

By every measure, our society is a mess. And, let’s admit it, so are we. We’re anxious and stressed and exhausted by years of chaos and conflict and bullying and divisiveness and lying and incivility from leaders in all parts our society, including religion.

We’ve inhaled a lot of toxic stuff, making it difficult to breath. We’re ready for fresh air. We’re yearning to heal and mend and move forward.

None of this is new. It’s a tale as old as time.

We humans have a history of falling and getting up. We wander away from what matters – love – and get completely lost. The question is how long we wander before we realize we’re lost and begin to find a way back.

Our Scriptures are full of such stories, tales of people and societies that were lost and then found. Our faith tradition is full of second chances, falling and rising, sin and redemption, death and resurrection, and division and reconciliation.

How do we get back on track? How do we mend and heal? Our faith provides a template.

The journey back begins with recognizing how far we’ve wandered off course. Prophets come along in many forms and challenge us to take an objective, unflinching look at ourselves.

They urge us to see what a mess we’ve become. See what needs to change. Compare what we’ve become to what we’re meant to be.

Then, we repent – a word that simply means aiming to do better. We commit to personal change as well as collective transformation. We re-center ourselves in love and renew our work to redeem and heal the world.

The mending process requires commitment and effort. Healing doesn’t just happen. Division doesn’t magically disappear. The fever won’t break until we address the underlying causes and eradicate the illness.

It’s holy and sacred work. It’s the work that’s given to us to do.

No, not everyone will be on board. Many will insist things are great and we need to keep heading in the same direction. They’ll continue stoking fear and hatred and endless wars over culture, politics and religion.

No matter.

We don’t need to get everyone on board; all we need is enough people committed to making a difference. That’s how it always works.

Each of us is a strong stitch than can pull things back together. Stitch by stitch, we repair what others have torn apart. We make all things new again.

That is the story of our faith. That is the way of human history. People come along to repair what others have ripped apart, including the parts of themselves that have gotten torn.

Tomorrow: Looking at ourselves

(“Praying Hands” image courtesy of josephleenovak @creativecommons.org)

We need one another

One Lisa Fotios at Pexels

What do you miss during social distancing?

I miss hugs. Concerts. Attending church. Sharing a birthday cake. Being there in person to feel someone’s joy or pain or struggle.

I miss Singo, a sing-along version of bingo. During Singo, nobody cares about political labels, age groups or religious affiliation. Everyone sings familiar lyrics together, and strangers get up and dance with one another.

Everyone just enjoys each other’s company.

All those activities are on hold as we try to contain the spread of a virus that leaves death and battered bodies in its wake. When the time comes that we can safely be social again, I hope we’ll do it with a renewed appreciation for each other.

I hope the pandemic has taught us how much we need one another.

We needed that lesson. We’ve become so divided that we’ve forgotten we’re intimately bound to one another.

As the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., put it, we’re all “caught in an inescapable network of mutuality.” Mother Teresa said that “if we have no peace, it is because we have forgotten we belong to each other.”

How did we forget that? How did we lose the pleasure and peace of each other’s loving company?

Perhaps a confluence of factors is responsible for fraying our common fabric.

Our culture worships individuality, the myth of the self-made man who pulls himself up by his bootstraps without anyone’s assistance at all. It’s all about me and my rights.

The Americanized version of Christianity promotes this self-centeredness, too. The prosperity gospel preaches self-absorption. Pad your personal accounts – financial as well as spiritual – while telling those bleeding by the side of the road to work harder.

We’ve got political, social and religious leaders trying to sell us the bitter pill of division as well. They want us to quarantine within political, social and theological bubbles, pushing away everyone who is different.

They frame it as us-against-them and promote nonstop political, cultural and religious wars against anyone not inside our bubble.

No! They’re selling a lie. The last three months have reminded us how much we need to stop the fighting and start reconnecting with one another.

Those connections are what we miss.

God made us as social beings. We’re hard-wired to be together and have relationship with God, with all God’s children, and with all God’s creation. Those artificial divisions deprive us of what we need most.

Hopefully that’s the pandemic’s lesson for when the time comes that we can safely come together again as extended human family.

We need one another.

(photo by Lisa Fotios @pexels.com)

 

 

 

Who’s atop our pedestals?

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We drove through a small town on our way to a nature area for a picnic and a hike in southern Ohio. The town is quaint with old storefronts dotting the public square.

In the middle of the square is a cannon, part of a large war monument that lists the names of town members who died in various wars. It’s a nice gesture to remember their sacrifices.

What struck me, though, was how there were no other remembrances of anything else involved with the town. How odd, I thought.

There was no mention of the town’s founder. Nothing honoring the teacher who started the first school that taught children about their world. No tribute to the town’s first doctor who made house calls in the middle of the night.

Nothing honoring the wise and compassionate leaders who developed the town and got it through times of division, showing everyone that there are ways to settle differences other than conflict.

I’m not picking on this one town. Most places – large and small – are the same way, if you think about it. There are war memorials and monuments to warriors in rural and urban communities.

Sporting events have morphed into tributes to the military, with fans applauding those who serve.

Meanwhile, we give comparatively scant attention to those who teach us, heal us, help us to grow in wisdom. We don’t invite doctors and nurses to stand on dugouts between innings for applause. We don’t invite teachers and social workers to stand at midfield for tributes.

We don’t hold ticker-tape parades for scientists and researchers who develop treatments that save our lives and our environment. We don’t create memorials to those who feed the poor and help the needy and work for peace.

No, our pedestals are mostly reserved for those who conduct war. So is our national budget; our society spends as much on the military as the next seven countries combined.

There’s nothing wrong with remembering the sacrifices of military people. When theirs are the only sacrifices we honor, however, we’re doing something other than showing appreciation to them.

We’re glorifying conflict and worshiping war.

My dad was a paratrooper in the Korean war. He was wounded and returned with his emotional scars. Neither he nor any of the other veterans in my family circle spoke of the atrocities they saw.

None of them glorified war.

Noble and courageous acts occur during war, but war itself is the ultimate human failure – God’s children killing God’s children — and must never be portrayed as anything else, certainly not with pedestals.

During our response to the pandemic, we’ve started paying more attention to people who have been overlooked by comparison.

We’re seeing the brave medical workers sacrificing to save lives and how we have failed to give them the support they need. We’re appreciating teachers much more after two months of home schooling.

We’re seeing how ordinary people treating others with compassion and care. We see regular folks doing courageous and noble acts to keep others safe.

We see so many people who belong on pedestals. We need to think about which ones we choose to put there, and why.

(Photo courtesy of Szilas @commons.wikimedia.org)

Healing a broken system

heal atomicity creative commons

Americans read about foreign hospitals overwhelmed by the coronavirus and mistakenly thought those horror stories could never happen here because our health care system is so good.

We spend more per capita on health care than any other developed nation, which provided a sense of security that was badly misplaced.

The virus has exposed a broken system. Our faith compels us to try to heal it.

The heart of religion is about healing our individual and collective brokenness and repairing ruptured relationships with God and one another. We must be healed, and we also must be healers, both individually and collectively.

The accounts of Jesus’ life describe him as a gifted healer who offered healing to everyone free of charge. He could have leveraged his abilities, but he chose not to.

He never monetized healing. Instead, he offered it like grace to anyone who desired it. He sent his followers to heal collectively in the same unbrokered way.

We’re meant to do so as well. As N.T. Wright puts it, “Healing is far too important and central to the stories about Jesus for those who wish to follow him today to ignore it.”

We can’t pretend about our health care system anymore. Long before the pandemic, we knew it was broken.

Millions can’t afford it. Those with health coverage face crippling debt for something as common as cancer. Premiums and deductibles soar. The cost of drugs jumps exponentially.

We saw with the opioid epidemic how a profit-motivated system inflicts suffering and death on society by pushing drugs that enrich the bottom line.

The coronavirus stripped away any remaining illusions about our system.

A doctor in a New York City emergency room wrote last month about her experiences as the virus raged. Dr. Helen Ouyang described for The New York Times Magazine how the system was ill-prepared for a pandemic that the medical profession had long predicted.

She described patients crammed into the ER, lying in their own waste while dying unattended because of depleted medical staffs.

Doctors and nurses were among the sick and dying because of inadequate protective equipment, a situation Dr. Ouyang described as far worse than in any of the “third-world” countries she visited on relief missions.

Applauding health care workers every evening or posting grateful memes isn’t enough. We have the resources we need to fix the system. What’s missing is our resolve.

Profit will always be part of the system, but we can’t allow it to be the engine driving it. Providing healing at an affordable cost for all God’s children must be the overriding intent.

There are many ways to do this. We need wide-ranging discussions to plot the best path and then enact changes, knowing we’ll get pushback from those making enormous profits off the current, broken system.

When healing is turned into a high-priced commodity available only to those who can afford it, we get a sick society. What we need now is healing. And people committed to being healers.

(Photo courtesy of atomicity @creativecommons.org)

Tomorrow: Monuments to war

 

 

 

 

Faith in our broken society

values burrows.nichole28 CC

The pandemic has shown us that we need to change not only our individual lives but our collective ones as well. There’s a lot in our society that’s deeply broken and needs fixed.

Our spending priorities are askew. Our health system is a mess. Our leadership is lacking. Our decisions favor some lives and render others expendable.

In times like these, prophetic voices challenge systems and shape discussions. We need to be those voices.

We can’t hide inside places of worship. We must get involved in what’s happening outside our doors.

Faith and values apply not only to our personal lives, but to our collective lives as well. If they don’t, our faith is only half-hearted and our values null and void.

Our religious tradition urges us to love God with all our hearts in all areas of our lives, not just the convenient parts. We’re to love our neighbors – all of them, in all situations – the same way we love ourselves.

Real faith is an all-or-nothing proposition.

Throughout history, many religiously observant people have endorsed superficial faith. Some Christians peddle the notion that Jesus’ values — love, compassion, forgiveness, healing, inclusion, caring for the needy, promoting peace — should apply to personal lives but can be excluded from our collective choices.

They say our society should be run by conflicting values – wealth, greed, privilege, self-interest, domination.

The same mentality created slavery and Jim Crow. White Christians insisted that their oppressive systems were exempt from Jesus’ commands to treat everyone as an equally beloved child of God.

We can’t limit faith to a few areas of our lives. We can’t ignore what’s being done by the various social systems that need our support or our inattention to continue.

That’s the real test of faith.

As the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., put it, “A religion true to its nature must also be concerned about man’s social conditions. … Any religion that professes to be concerned with the souls of men and is not concerned with the slums that damn them, the economic conditions that strangle them, and the social conditions that cripple them is a dry-as-dust religion.”

One form of religion mustn’t gain privilege or supremacy; rather, faith compels us to ground our collective decisions in the loving values that are the foundation of all true religion.

Our conversations about the many challenges confronting us must begin by acknowledging our shared responsibility to care for all God’s children and all God’s creation in all circumstances.

It’s all-or-nothing.

We’ll sometimes disagree about how best to accomplish goals, but we must always be in accord on the underlying intention for all we do. Love alone must be our motivation.

If we choose a different starting point for our collective decisions, then we’ve not only lost our way but any semblance of faith as well.

(Photo illustration courtesy of burrows.nichole28 @creativecommons.org)

Tomorrow: Healers in a broken system

 

 

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)

 

Lessons of restlessness

restless thibaud saintin CC

Restlessness can be a good teacher.

We all feel restless at various times in our lives — I’m feeling that way now, and I’m sure I’m not alone. With the pandemic, many of our routines are gone. Favorite diversions are no longer available.

We’re used to being on the daily treadmill and now the machine is unplugged, and we don’t know what to do next. Every day feels the same. Our usual coping mechanisms are unavailable.

Restlessness abounds. And it has some important things it wishes to teach us.

Normally, we try to avoid the lessons by anesthetizing it with alcohol or other substances. We seek temporary good feelings that are never as deep or enduring as we want.

We buy something, or we watch something, or we start some project hoping it will bring the missing sense of satisfaction. It never provides more than temporary relief.

And then the feeling returns to remind us that something important is missing from our life right now.

Augustine had the famous line about how our souls are restless until they rest in our God of love. We must let that love transform us, heal us and animate us.

Only then do we get the peace and purpose we crave. Only then is our restlessness replaced by an energizing connectedness.

These challenging weeks provide a chance to take a closer look and see what needs to be stripped away to create space for what we really want.

We can see what sidetracks us from where we need to go. We can take inventory of the ways we fall into the trap of merely killing time or relieving boredom instead of living deeply.

We can identify things we substitute for love and fulfillment.

The pandemic has temporarily stripped away our diversions and temporary fixes, creating room to grow – if we choose. May our restlessness point us toward what we really desire.

As Richard Rohr puts it, “If there is no living water flowing through us, then we must pray for the desire for it to flow! Once the desire for something more is stirred and recognized, it is just a matter of time.

“Nothing less will ever totally satisfy us again.”

(Photo courtesy of Thibaud Saintin @creativecommons.org)