What If It’s Not Meant to Be Figured Out?

I’ve spent my entire life – I mean, as much of my life as I can remember – trying to Figure It All Out. Is there a God? Am I going to hell? Is there such a thing as an afterlife? If there is, will we be floating around in the clouds? Will we be enjoying our own personal mansions? Won’t living forever be a colossal bore? Especially if we have harps and wings? Or are forced to listen to MercyMe forever (I Can Only Imagine…)? Will we merge into a cosmic sea of Oneness? And my favorite existential crisis forming thought – will we have hangnails in heaven (yes, I actually had this thought and yes, it actually freaked me out).

But last night, taking the dog out after a very long, tiring day, in the silence of the night, I had a thought. What if it’s not meant to be figured out?

Christians have come up with all kinds of theories about what Ultimate Reality looks like. But Jesus doesn’t talk too much about this. About all we get out of him is that God exists, God is love, and we are to love God and neighbor. And maybe some strange passages about women married to seven brothers being like the “angels in heaven” or a brief assertion that the thief on the cross will join him in “paradise.” Which, what the hell, Jesus? That doesn’t make things any clearer.

Pretty thin source material to figure out a Theory of Everything for Eternity.

And really, the things that Jesus DID teach about “eternal life,” are the things I have experienced. The deep Knowing that there is a love that undergirds the universe. The fact that this Divine Love can only be really accessed in the present moment. The essential sense that as Julian of Norwich saw, “All shall be well.”

And the really radical thing about understanding this is that it allows me to actually play around with these thoughts without feeling existentially crushed by them. And it also allows me to accept at face value the fact that other people have very different thoughts about these things, and that’s okay. Because to be honest, none of it really matters. What is, will be. And what we think it is won’t change what it actually is. And in the end, whatever it is will be okay. Because I’ve felt the Love.

So while it’s perfectly fine to study theology and come up with ideas about God and eternity, I am free to live my life here and now – the only place where the kin’dom of God really is anyway. And know that the next moment will be just as filled with that kin’dom as the current one.

Welling up to eternal life.

On the Days When I’m Not a Christian

So, Arkansas is the latest state to enact an abomination at the behest of the Religious Right:

“The Republican-controlled House and Senate voted to override GOP Gov. Asa Hutchinson’s veto of the measure, which prohibits doctors from providing gender confirming hormone treatment, puberty blockers or surgery to anyone under 18 years old, or from referring them to other providers for the treatment.”

The purpose of this post is not to go into exactly how horrifically abominable this law is, although anyone with a heart for kids learning to be and love themselves as they were created should clearly see it. But this is just one in a long string of abominations the church has foisted upon the world.

And honestly, on days like today, and increasingly most days, where I really feel like the label Christian itself has become an abomination with which I no longer want to be associated, I can only think of two possible options for why the church has turned into such a dumpster fire of an institution:

  1. Jesus really was an evil dude who proposed an evil religion based on subjugating non-white people, toxic patriarchy, and oppression of anyone who didn’t conform to the norms of that religion (especially LGBTQIA+ folks).
  2. Jesus is either so exceptionally weak as to be irrelevant, or completely non-existent.

Earlier today, this was really where I was. Maybe all of the things I thought were God were really just myself? Maybe this is just a bunch of made-up nonsense that has no relevance to my life.

Maybe.

But then another possibility came to me. Perhaps, as I have experienced, Jesus wasn’t fooling around when he said the church was the body of Christ. That the entire purpose of the church was not some fools’ errand search for perfection, but instead its purpose was to be a vehicle for getting people in touch with their very real humanity. A humanity that is, at its core, one with Christ and all of Creation.

I was always taught that the church was supposed to be the moral exemplar to the world. That if only we could just be entirely sanctified, we would draw people to Jesus. That the most important thing is getting rid of those pesky sins, and calling others to get rid of their sins.

And then I never saw it happen. More than thirty years as a Christian and I have never seen the church be much of a moral exemplar of anything. Instead, it has been a place of condemnation, of subjugation, of sexual assault, of pedophilia, of greed, and of hate. Just like the “world” it was supposed to transcend.

And the more I pondered this, the more I recognized that expecting the church to be anything other than what the world is is untenable. The church cannot be any more or any less than what humanity itself is, any more than a rock can choose to be a tree or a tree can choose to be a star.

And while I absolutely think that the church is capable of acting in ways that are better for itself, other people, and the entire world, I believe this of all people regardless of whether they share a common tradition or belief system with me. And over time, I do believe that the entirety of human consciousness is moving in a more enlightened direction, despite devastating setbacks.

But history shows us that the church is quite capable of intense evil. The crusades, the Doctrine of Discovery, the genocide of native Americans, slavery, Jim Crow, and the continuing legacy of white supremacy in the church make that plain. But then history also shows us that the Communist Soviet Union, People’s Republic of China, and Cambodia killed tens of millions. Humanity is quite capable of atrocities regardless of belief.

So then, what is the use of the church? What is the use of a faith in Christ?

On this point, I can only lean into experience and agree with Julian of Norwich. The purpose of the church, and any healthy faith, is to proclaim to the world “All will be well.” That we are not alone in this struggle to be human. That though at our zoomed in level there are plenty of worries for the day, when zoomed out to 13.7 billion years of universal history, goodness is unfolding and prevailing.

This is not something I can convince anyone is true. But it is something that I believe I have seen to be true. Not with my eyes, but non-dually with the eyes of my heart. And that’s enough for me.

For today.

A Strange Day

I’m listening to Pornography by The Cure again, something that I don’t do often enough.

It’s absolutely my favorite Cure album. It’s dark, brooding, and all-out Goth. It overlays the existential crises of the band as they went through a particularly dark time that almost led to their breakup (and Robert Smith’s suicidal ideation) with amazing percussion and that gloomy wall of sound.

And it’s the album that most reminds me of my best friend at the time, Jason, who passed away during my junior year of high school. This was the album that we listened to every morning after he got his car and I hitched a ride with him to school. It was one of the many albums by Depeche Mode, Bauhaus, The Cure, and other 1980s New Wave legends that we spent hours listening to. Jason was the king of the 12 inch maxi-single, and had the best Depeche Mode collection of anyone I knew.

And he also probably saved my life.

My father had left home during my ninth grade year in an addiction laced bender which led to the collapse of his business and the collapse of my illusion that my dysfunctional family wasn’t completely fucked. I spent the entirety of that year ditching school (by pulling the Ferris Buelleresque “I’m sick” card while my mom was at work and my dad too far down the drain to deal with me). And once my dad was gone, the only thing I was left with was the depression. And online Bulletin Board Systems, but that’s for another post someday. Maybe.

So the hours that we spent at his house playing video games on his Atari 800 and Amiga computers, and listening to records, and sharing the most recent acquisitions to our collection were salvation for me. Jason, the consummate optimist, and I, the incorrigible pessimist, whiling away the hours listening to dark, dark New Wave anthems.

And years after he died, Jason also played a big role in the evolution of my faith. I’m not sure whether Jason believed in anything spiritual in any way. As a matter of fact, I’m pretty sure he was an atheist or an agnostic (as I was at the time). But he was God’s grace in a dark time. And it was that grace to me that made it impossible for me to believe in the days after I had decided to follow Jesus during college that he would end up in hell for not saying a specific prayer during his short life (and all lives are short, regardless of their length). This drove the wedge in my evangelical faith that ultimately led me to re-examine and ultimately reject doctrines such as eternal conscious torment, Biblical inerrancy, and the idea that who one was or who one loved could make them a sinner outside of God’s love.

And so now, as I listen to Pornography once again, I think of one of my favorite pieces of Christian Theology: The Communion of the Saints. And I feel Jason’s presence with me, as I am sure all of the saints who are one with us now and forever are also with me. And remember the lyrics to A Strange Day, my favorite song from the album:

“My head falls back and the walls crash down
And the sky and the impossible explode
Held for one moment I remember a song
An impression of sound
And then everything is gone forever
A strange day”

Here’s to you, Jason. You were one of the good ones.

There is No Church In America

So, today’s shocking/not shocking blockbuster is that evangelical Christian and former White House Coronavirus Response Coordinator Deborah Birx is coming forward a year too late to tell us that if only we had actually followed the science rather than followed Trump’s calls to “liberate” states last year, we could have saved hundreds of thousands of lives:

“I look at it this way. The first time we have an excuse,” Birx says. “There were about a hundred thousand deaths that came from that original surge. All of the rest of them, in my mind, could have been mitigated or decreased substantially.”

Now, this post is not primarily intended as a political rant. Wearing masks and not congregating indoors and temporarily suspending church services to save lives should never have been political issues. But the pandemic made it clear to me that you can’t rely on anyone in this country. There is no sense of the common good. And the church is more guilty than any other segment of the population of leaving people to fend for themselves. Deborah Birx is only a smart part of the problem.

The bigger issue is that there is no Church in this country. In its place, we have the Cult of Religious Freedom. We have the Cult of Christian Nationalism. We have the Cult of the Second Amendment (Molech Worship). And, to be honest, most of the local incarnations of this church are just cults of personality revolving around a host of Christian media stars and local pastors trying to become Christian media stars. And false prophets. Lots of false prophets.

The Church was intended to be the body of Christ. The same Christ who laid down his life for his friends and told Christ’s church to deny itself, take up its cross, and follow. It was intended to be a place that served and loved its fellow humanity because in doing so it was serving and loving Christ’s own self. And it did a pretty good job of this… for a couple of centuries.

But then empire took over, and instead of the cross we got the Crusades. We got patriarchy. We got the Doctrine of Discovery. We got settler colonialism. We got slavery. We got Jim Crow and Apartheid. We got homophobia.

So here we are, in 21st century America, and Christ has no Church. And while I do believe that there are groups of followers of the way of Jesus at the margins of whatever it is that is masquerading as the Church today (the black church comes to mind), I’m absolutely convinced that whatever the hell we are doing in those so called church buildings nowadays, it isn’t being the Church.

For me personally, I am still a follower of the way of Jesus, think that there is an ineffable God beyond my understanding, and enjoy being a part of the local church of which I am a part. But make no mistake about it: The Church does not exist in this country. Jesus has left the building.

Our Babylonian Captivity

As part of my morning prayers, the Psalm of the day was Psalm 137:

By the waters of Babylon we sat down and wept,
when we remembered you, O Zion.

As for our harps, we hung them up
on the trees in the midst of that land.

For those who led us away captive asked us for a song,
and our oppressors called for mirth:
“Sing us one of the songs of Zion.”

How shall we sing the LORD’S song
upon an alien soil?

If I forget you, O Jerusalem,
let my right hand forget its skill.

Let my tongue cleave to the roof of my mouth
if I do not remember you,
if I do not set Jerusalem above my highest joy.

Remember the day of Jerusalem, O LORD,
against the people of Edom,
who said, “Down with it! down with it!
even to the ground!”

O Daughter of Babylon, doomed to destruction,
happy the one who pays you back
for what you have done to us!

Happy shall he be who takes your little ones,
and dashes them against the rock!

Setting aside the imprecatory last two verses, I was struck by how relevant this Psalm is for those of us who still seek to follow the way of Jesus in 21st Century America.

Like the Psalmist, we live in Babylon, the pre-eminent empire of our time.

The church has chosen the idol of Religious Freedom over the call to love its neighbor as itself. When faced with the gravest health crisis of any of our lives, it chose to flout lockdowns by singing its songs for Babylon in mass worship concerts and to teach its children to burn their masks rather than wear them to protect their vulnerable neighbors. When confronted with the essential dignity of all people, regardless of who they are and who they love, it chose to exclude and file lawsuits to enforce its exclusion. When challenged to treat people of all faiths with kindness and compassion, it whined about a “war on Christmas.” Neighbor love is not high on its list.

Like the Psalmist, we weep for the fall of Zion, the church which has been swallowed up by the original sins of our nation: white supremacy, Christian Nationalism, and patriarchy.

When confronted with the call to affirm that Black Lives do, indeed, matter, it chose to once again sit on the sidelines and offer up a weak “All Lives Matter.” When 10 AM on Sunday remains the most segregated hour in America, we know that the church has fallen. And when asked to just learn about and understand the struggle that BIPOC people in our country have always faced, the church instead made up a strange new theology that says Critical Race Theory is opposed to the gospel.

When we turn on our televisions and see Jesus Saves flags at an attempt to overrun and overthrow the people’s will through an election, we know that the church has fallen. When our fellow congregants are more likely to believe in QAnon conspiracies as in the radical love of Christ, we know that the church has fallen. When adhering to Fox News Conservatism become the marker of whether one is a true Christian, can we come to any other conclusion than that the church has fallen?

And when we see a “good Christian” gunman walk into businesses and murder Asian-American females in order to eliminate the “temptations” he blames for his “sex addiction,” we see the damage the church’s patriarchy and purity culture has done. How it blames women for the sexual violence of men. How it victim shames. How it gaslights. How it infantilizes men by stating that their raging hormones are uncontrollable and so they need to live a so-called “pure” life rather than doing the work needed in order to see all women as equals and not objects.

And so we weep.

But for those of us who still seek out the way of Jesus, “how can we sing the Lord’s song upon an alien soil?” By joining in with the chorus of the captive American church, we forget our Jerusalem. It would be better if our tongue was unable to move than to sing the songs of empire disguised as worship and praise songs.

And so, I would rather leave the captive church than stay and sing its songs to Caesar. I would rather leave the captive church than hurt my very own flesh in my neighbor. I would rather leave the captive church than teach my children to forget who they truly are and how they should be in the world.

A Lamentation

How long, Lord

Will we have to see
Asian women killed in their workplace
Black Christians gunned down at Bible study
Black men and women murdered at the hands of bad cops
“Good cops”, police unions, politicians, and regular citizens covering for those bad cops
Children hiding in terror at an approaching gunman
Those same children dying in terror
Matthew Shepard beaten, killed, and tied to a fence
Emmett Till’s lynched body in a coffin

How long, Lord

We are tired
Tired of a system that values whiteness over humanness
Tired of politicians who inflame hatred to get votes
Tired of inhumanity directed at people fleeing violence and poverty
Tired of Black lives not mattering
Tired of Asian lives not mattering
Tired of Latino lives not mattering
Tired of Muslim lives not mattering
Tired of Native lives not mattering
You see where this is going?

How long, Lord

We wonder if you can hear us
We wonder if you are too weak to fix things
We wonder if you care
We wonder if you are even there

How long, Lord

On days like today, where hope is hiding, all we have is our fears
Our fist-shaking anger
Our pain
Our worry
Our sadness
Our tears that won’t stop falling

How long, Lord, until you make yourself visible?

By What We Have Left Undone…

I just had a bit of an epiphany. I used to get really defensive when people would say that Christians are intolerant (“but but not all Christians…”). But to be honest, Christianity IS intolerant. It IS white supremacist. It IS hostile to people outside its mainstream, most especially LGBTQ+ folks.

The reality is that the Church is absolutely guilty of everything it is accused of being.

And I know, because I’m a part of one of these denominations, that there are “progressive” parts of the Church that are less all of these things. But we’re a small part of a dying Church that is dying even faster than the rest of it. And again, we’re only “less” of those things.

I guess for me personally, I can’t quit the Christian thing. It pointed me to Jesus both as a way of life and as a divine love to be shared with God and with everyone and everything in the universe. But I also don’t think I can just point the finger at “other” Christians. My Church is racist. My Church fails to welcome those fleeing persecution. My Church disavows people because of who they are and who they love. My Church voted for Donald Trump twice.

So all I can do is hold this in tension (or non-dually, if you will). The same Church that points to a divine love that is greater than even it understands also wounds people deeply.

One of my favorite prayers in the Christian liturgy is the confession of sin. I think that on behalf of the Church of which I am a part, this is my prayer today:

“Most merciful God,
we confess that we have sinned against you
in thought, word, and deed,
by what we have done,
and by what we have left undone.
We have not loved you with our whole heart;
we have not loved our neighbors as ourselves.
We are truly sorry and we humbly repent.
For the sake of your Son Jesus Christ,
have mercy on us and forgive us;
that we may delight in your will,
and walk in your ways,
to the glory of your Name. Amen.”

This is my prayer for both myself and my church in this time.

Re-Build My Church

Stuart Stevens of the Lincoln Project has an excellent article out today about the electoral moment we are in. I’m not going to comment on whether I think he is correct in his reading of who will win on November 3, but his comments about the Republican party struck me as also applying to the American Church:

“There are many good men and women in the Republican party, but they have proven themselves to be smaller than the moment demanded. They stink of fear and desperation and it breaks my heart to watch them flail around trying to convince the world, and themselves, that they are not who they have proven to be. I feel sadness. I feel pity. But not remorse.

Today’s Republicans are not worthy of the great legacy they inherited. When grown men and women refuse to denounce a man who boasts he did not rape a woman because “she was not my type,” any semblance of public good has been lost. I can’t direct the Republican party to the lost and found where it might reclaim its soul, but I do know that defeat, while not sufficient, is necessary in order for it to embark on that journey.”

St. Francis, according to tradition, was told by God to “re-build my church.” He then spent the rest of his life doing just that, not only rebuilding the physical church of San Damiano, but also founding an order that inspires not only Franciscans, but Catholics, Protestants, and even people of other religions and no religion to this day.

The church in America, and indeed the larger Church worldwide, has spent the last 400 (or 1700) years building itself on a foundation of empire, conquest, racism, slavery, and genocide. And while many of the rooms it has built on top of that foundation have served it well from time to time, the entire edifice is now at risk of toppling. As the nones and dones stream out of its doors, it has entered a defensive crouch and tied its fortunes to a man who comfortably inhabits the throne of Babylon and Rome.

Regardless of what happens at the end of Trump’s political era, the question for those who remain in the church is whether they will circle the wagons and tighten their grip on their ever shrinking institution, or will they seek to rebuild Christ’s church.

As for me, I know where I will be. I will be trying to rebuild Christ’s church.

The Golden Calf

Yesterday, I stumbled across a Facebook thread between two of my college friends. The thread quickly went off the rails as one of my friends (male) brought their pet topic (abortion) into an unrelated post, and heatedly rebutted all of the comments posted by a number of female commenters including my other friend. Now, I’m totally not surprised by the behavior of my male friend, as he has morphed into an extremely politically and doctrinally rigid person since we left college, which has been a bit shocking to see considering the generous and easygoing person he was when I knew him. And as I watched him mansplain and ultimately belittle those who questioned him, I was saddened to see how small and angry he seemed to have become.

The conversation also led me to think more broadly about the moment we find ourselves in as a country. How have we gotten to a place where our opponents are no longer our neighbors who hold different political views, but that we consider them our enemies out to destroy all that we hold dear? How have we gotten to a place where we are talking about rejecting election results, civil unrest, and perhaps even civil war?

When Moses came down from Mount Sinai with the tablets of the ten commandments, the story goes, he found that the Israelites, tired of waiting for him to finish his time with God, had constructed a golden calf to serve as the object of their worship. And some time later, established in the Promised Land, the Israelites, tired of looking weak by not having a King of their own, demanded that God give them one. In both cases, things ended poorly for Israel. Death, misrule, and exile awaited them in their impatience. But how does any of this apply to our current time?

A thought came to me after reading the thread between my two friends. It seems that Americans are having their own Golden Calf Moment. As talk radio morphed into agenda-driven cable news, blogs, and ultimately social media, politics has become more than something that neighbors politely disagree about and then get back to enjoying one another’s company at the pot luck. It has become an all-encompassing idol, crowding out grace and friendship as we draw battle lines.

A few hundred years after the impatience of Israel demanding a King, Jesus came on the scene and told us that “You know that among the Gentiles those whom they recognize as their rulers lord it over them, and their great ones are tyrants over them. But it is not so among you; but whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all.” (Mark 10:42-44). Sadly, even the American church has gone down the road of the tyranny of the golden calf of politics, instead of the narrow gate of servanthood. Can we ever relearn to love our neighbors as ourselves? Can we ever dethrone politics from its priority place in our lives?

If we all make it through this wild election and likely post-election season, my hope is firmly placed in the church, or at least MY church, finding its way in the way of love. The way of Jesus. And not the way of the golden calf of politics.

Missing Voices

Twice before in my life, someone that I really didn’t know in person passed away and I really, truly grieved.

Nine years ago, Michael Spencer, the Internet Monk, passed away. Michael was the first Christian I ever came across (solely on the internet, in this case), who was real about his doubts, his struggles, and his non-canonical evangelical faith. He taught me about a grace deeper than I could have ever imagined, a faith more ecumenical than I thought possible, and a Christ more mystical than could be imagined. His passing left a deep hole in my faith that I am still struggling to fill to this day. He was a great mentor to me, even though I never met him. And I grieved.

The next year, Steve Jobs passed away. Computers, specifically Apple computers, had helped this shy, awkward teenager engage with the world. They had given me my career. And they had brought delight. While Jobs was nowhere near as important to me as Michael Spencer, his impact on my life was such that I truly grieved as well. Even though I had never even seen him in person.

Rachel Held Evans’ passing is proving to be similar. I am truly grieving.

Looking back at my life, I really feel that Michael Spencer’s death cast me adrift. In the four years prior, I had seen the faith that I had received upon becoming a Christian in college radically transformed due to some wonderful teaching by Richard Rohr, Brian McLaren, Rob Bell, Michael Spencer, and others. I began looking for something deeper, more authentic, and more connected to the historic church than what I had been taught.

But then Michael Spencer passed away, and I kind of turned my faith off. I didn’t do it consciously, but I think the unfairness of him passing away in his fifties, just as he was starting to become a voice of great good in the church, unconsciously impacted me and caused me to focus on other things. I still went to church (for the most part), but I really didn’t care. And most of the time I actively tuned it out.

So this year came, and so did God. He reawakened me.

Now, anyone who knows me well would know that when my faith is growing, it means I will have a stack of spiritual books that I am reading and another list of books that I would like to read. So on to the pile was added Richard Rohr and Thomas Merton, but I also picked up Searching for Sunday by Rachel Held Evans.

While my faith switch had been turned off all of those years, I would periodically read an article by RHE where she excoriated evangelicalism for this or that. I enjoyed the skewering of conservative selective morality that she did with her A Year of Biblical Womanhood (though I never read it). And I respected her as someone who was authentically serving as a voice for the Nones and Dones who were leaving the church. As I kind of had already done, at least mentally.

But it wasn’t until my “reawakening” this year that I started to actually listen to what she had to say. I was first introduced to her on The Liturgists Podcast. And her openness about her doubts, and her struggles, and the fact that so much of modern Christianity makes so little sense really moved me. And yet she still believed. Which moved me more.

Searching for Sunday was a deep affirmation of where I was with my faith. My faith was flawed, but it was beautiful. Doubt, and darkness, and uncertainty were not a sign of weakness, but in fact the path toward God. And she told everything with such an authentic voice, and such a gentle wit, that I could not help but devour the book. Even at the expense of Richard Rohr’s Universal Christ (and if you know me, you know I LOVE Richard Rohr).

And this is why I grieve even though I never knew her. Never attended a conference featuring her. Only had the most basic contact with what she had to teach. I grieve because there was a prophet in our midst. And I slept through it all. I grieve because her love for all of the people who are absolutely fucking done with the church has become my love. And now our prophet will speak no more.

I will miss you, Rachel Held Evans, even though I only knew you from afar. I will devour your books over the coming weeks and months and I’m sure I will grow because of them in my love for Christ, the church, and all of the people who the church has done such a bad job serving. Thank you for a life well lived, and a love well given.