Sunday, September 25, 2011

Pentecost 15A

An article, by American preacher Lillian Daniel has been circulating widely among religious professionals. In fact I think half my clergy friends on Facebook and Twitter provided a link to it because it speaks to a common frustration among church folks.

The article has the provocative title “Spiritual But Not Religious? Please Stop Boring Me.” In it she takes on those who create their own spirituality on their own terms. She scolds those whose heartfelt theological reflections lead people to the deeply profound and radical conclusions that they “find God in the sunset” or “during walks on the beach” or “while hiking in the mountains” as if we Christians never thought of finding God in nature before.

She waves a finger at them chiding them saying “Being privately spiritual but not religious just doesn't interest me. There is nothing challenging about having deep thoughts all by oneself. What is interesting is doing this work in community, where other people might call you on stuff, or heaven forbid, disagree with you. Where life with God gets rich and provocative is when you dig deeply into a tradition that you did not invent all for yourself...”

I understand her frustration. As one who has dug deeply into the Christian theological tradition, and discovering its riches, it can seem downright insulting to centuries of thoughtful theological reflection being diminished in favour of a “I find God in the sunsets” kind of kindergarten spirituality.

And we - YOU - as a church, who gather regularly to hear God’s word and receive the Holy Sacraments, who work hard to build a strong church, who give so much of your time, talents, and treasure to ensure that the proclamation of the gospel is heard between these walls and lived out in the community.

Those of you who’ve lived, breathed, and died the gospel message, might be offended to hear that some folks believe their self-styled “walk along the beach” spirituality is a more authentic expression of faith than you who have holy dirt under your fingernails.

In my job I encounter these folks with self-created spiritualities all the time, folks who dismiss or challenge institutional religious traditions. But the weird thing is that they want me, as a religious leader to affirm their religious rants, no matter how bizarre they are.

A conversation usually goes like this, “Look, pastor, I know you are a Christian, but I believe that the earth is just a school for us to learn how to live on a higher plane of existence when we die, after which we exist as pure energy. And when we suffer it means we were meant to have that experience because in a past life we hurt someone and we need to feel the same thing. That’s true right? RIGHT?”

And, of course, if I disagree with them, I’m forcing my religion on to them, being the typical despotic preacher who demands intellectual obedience, as if they weren’t doing the same to me.

I find those conversations annoying, if not insulting. As if their random musings are at the same level as thousands of years of deep theological refections.

Many religious commentators have chimed in on why this phenomena is happening. Some say that it’s because of boring church services with long, tedious sermons that are out of touch with peoples’ daily lives.

Others suggest that we speak a religious language that does not compute in the brains of non-believers; that the words we use get lost in translation when they reach secular ears.

Yet others blame the growth of a multi-cultural society, where there’s no moral or religious consensus, and so the spiritual waters have been so muddied that folks are forced to create their own spiritual meaning.

Still others blame a self-centered consumer society, where people get to pick and choose everything else in their lives, so why not their personal spirituality?

While I’m sure that there’s truth in all of these theories, I wonder if the rise of self-styled and self-created spiritualities is the unintended consequence of Christians behaving badly. Our cultural memory is long, and history doesn’t forget, and it hurts our proclamation and our reputation as good news people.

People remember the Crusades and the Inquisition. The know about the sexual abuse scandals and Residential Schools. The or complicity or silence of Christians during the Holocaust.

People remember when the church was more interested in protecting its cultural and political power than in setting people free in Jesus’ name. People remember the angry, judgmental sermons and the mean Sunday School teacher. They remember being forced to memorize scripture, and they saw the vitriolic TV evangelist.

They experienced a Christianity that was about controlling peoples’ behavior, demanding social conformity. They experienced a Christianity that celebrated obedience rather than freedom. They saw preachers who used their positions and pulpits for financial gain at the expense of the gospel.

So, it’s not as if this is happening in a historical vacuum. People are rebelling against an institutional, authoritarian Christianity that hurt them, which is the only kind of Christianity that seems to make the news. Should we be surprised, then, when people walk away and claim spiritual independence for themselves?

As a church leader, there’s something therapeutic in criticizing self-styled spiritualities. But criticism can easily devolve into smugness. It’s tempting to look down my nose at those whose faith has as much spiritual nourishment as a Big Mac with fries.

It’s easy to ask, “Why can’t these folks just see what they’re doing, and then get back on board with traditional Christianity?” But that question speaks as much about what we’ve lost as much as our concern for those who are wandering in the wilderness searching for spiritual food that sustains.

Today is supposed to be called “Back to Church” Sunday, where we’re encouraged to invite people who have not been to church for a while. It’s supposed to be an evangelistic exercise designed to help churches return, once again, to a place of institutional prominence.Which is why I decided that Good Shepherd will NOT participate in Back to Church Sunday.

Back to Church Sunday, to my eyes, focuses our vision on the past - on what we’ve LOST rather than what God has for us in the future. The program wants to bring “BACK” our previous successes rather than to turn our gaze to what’s ahead.

To me, it’s clear that God is doing something new, by doing something old. God is calling us away from the cultural captivity of western culture, and asking us to learn again, what Paul was trying to teach the church in Philippi.

“Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility, regard others as better than yourselves. Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others...”

While I think Paul overstates the issue when he says to “regard others as better than yourselves,” calling the church to humility, I also think he was on to something when he reminded the church that the heart of our life together is humble service to others, just like Jesus lived.

Paul goes on to quote from an early Christian hymn:

“Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human likeness, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death - even death on a cross...”

As followers of this one who humbled himself, that is our calling. I’ve always said that the church of the future will be smaller, but stronger. As we break free from our cultural captivity to power and success, as our institutional structures crumble, God will raise up a new church that is marked by humility, and revitalized by a deep spirituality rooted in ancient practice but with eyes open for God’s future.

We will no longer feel threatened by people with self-styled spiritualities or feel endangered by world religions. We will no longer worry about being a minority, but will embrace our small numbers. We will no longer look to the past with longing, but will look to the future with anticipation.

Because having been set free from institutional shackles and cultural entitlement, we will once again be a movement of good news people, joyfully proclaiming God’s message of life and salvation, freedom and forgiveness, justice and joy.

We will grow as a resurrection people. And then one day, we will see that every knee will bend and every tongue will confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.

May this be so among. Amen!

Labels: , ,


Post a Comment

<< Home