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.

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.

The Pattern of the Universe

Since this whole spiritual re-awakening thing started a few weeks back, I’ve been slowly adding back the spiritual practices that were so meaningful to me in my “post new wineskins” period around 2006/2007. One of those is what I will call a contemplative walk, although I honestly can’t remember the real name for this practice. I took one today.

My goal on this walk through the woods by our house was simply to be present. I focused on my breathing. The steps I took along the trail. The sound of the stream as it flowed. And, for part of the walk, the music I was listening to. My mind wandered, certainly, and I wasn’t overly concerned with that. But when it did wander, I would redirect it back to being present.

Toward the end of the walk, I really started to notice that it was winter. The trees were barren, there was no one else on the trails, and I could feel the cold against my skin. And then something mystical happened.

Richard Rohr talks about the “cruciform shape to reality”. The fact that Jesus’ death and resurrection is the model for all of life. And while intellectually, I could kind of follow the logic, I never really understood it.

Until today.

I thought of the patterns of the seasons. New life in the spring yields to maturity during the summer, then a decline in the fall before nature goes to sleep for the winter. And then, the next spring, resurrection!

And then, I thought about our human lives, defined by a spring of birth and youth, a summer of striving and establishing, a fall of physical decline before winter comes and we go to sleep. But Christ’s promise is that we, too, will follow the cruciform pattern and be resurrected.

And then I thought to the very universe itself. The Big Bang and the hyperinflation of its spring. The stable universe we know today with galaxies and stars and solar systems. Its eventual decline either in a big crush, or based on what is now reasonably widely accepted due to the measurements of dark matter in the universe, more likely a big freeze as everything flies apart at faster and faster speeds. Now, science can’t tell us much about what comes before, nor about what comes after, but the cruciform pattern can still be seen (and, pro tip – there are some stories in the Bible which hint at the non-scientifically observable parts of the story).

And so it is with life. To quote Richard Rohr, “Loss precedes all renewal; emptiness makes way for every new infilling; every transformation in the universe requires the surrendering of a previous ‘form.’ This is the big fly in the cosmic ointment!

There is mystery in the fact that the way of the cross appears to be baked into the entire fabric of the universe. We are constantly seeing new incarnations which ultimately die and are resurrected. The only question is will we still ourselves long enough so that we can see it and be transformed by it?

Mercy and Justice

Mercy and Justice.

Mercy. And Justice.

Mercy. And. Justice.

We tend to think of those two things as being separate, and perhaps even opposites.

Mercy. Forgiveness. Love.

Justice. Wrath. Punishment.

But what if we’re looking at it wrong? What if in fact mercy and justice are really just two sides of the same coin? What if the mercy that liberates the oppressed and the justice that judges the oppressor are really the same thing? What if in fact oppression oppresses both the oppressor and the oppressed and they both are really in need of mercy and justice? What if injustice prevents mercy from flowing in either direction?

Martin Luther King, Jr. talked about the “beloved community.” The Hebrew scriptures talk about shalom. Mercy and justice kiss.

And what if the church, especially the American evangelical church, in its zeal to save souls from eternal death, has missed the point of grace and mercy by failing to understand that it is intertwined with justice.

Not the justice that casts into hell, but the justice that frees first the oppressed, and then the oppressor to receive the mercy of God.

There is no message of grace in a world where black lives don’t matter. Where refugees are made to wait years for asylum in a place that is only marginally safer than the one they left. Where billionaires are free to suck up the vast majority of the world’s wealth while the vast majority struggle to even survive. Where people are shunned and shamed because of who they love and how they were made.

There is no gospel that does not tackle mercy and justice together. As one. At the same time.

Blessings not just for the ones who kneel.. luckily

One of the things I’ve learned about God is that sometimes, for some inexplicable reason, he takes his time.

A lot of time.

I’ve spent the last several years thoroughly, and completely wandering the post-evangelical wilderness.  Certainties have become scarce, life has intruded, my sin has been magnified, and my faith has been nearly destroyed on several occasions.

But he’s never late.

In recent months I have struggled with doubt and fear that I thought I had left behind when I made the decision to follow him.  Painful, physical doubt. And the endless silence of the dark night of the soul (but not  St. John of the Cross’ Dark Night of the Soul, for which I am quite sure I am unprepared).

And then, suddenly, as I was at my end – as all of the familiar tools of my faith – prayer and worship and word and sacrament – had become ashes in my mouth – he arrived.

Grace, and peace, and faithfulness, and PRESENCE! Presence that I cannot explain but which overwhelmed me. Evidence that once again, everything was going to be alright. Weeping and laughing and joy breaking through the clouds of my gloom.

I can’t quite explain it.  It certainly has nothing to do with my faithfulness.  I struggle to come to him consistently, and consider myself to be just about as much of a sinner as ever. But for about the last month, just about every time I have come to him, he has been there.  Obviously there.  As in “wow, this prayer stuff is real” there. As in, “I kind of understand what it means to be praying ‘in the spirit’ now.” As in, “I’m just floating in the river letting God’s current of grace push me where he may.”

He came just in time. And I can only pray that the next time it seems like he’s taking far too long to come, I will remember this time when he waited until the last possible moment.

* The title of this post comes from “City of Blinding Lights,” by U2.

There are No Words

Today, the Internet Monk, Michael Spencer, passed away after battling cancer. I, for one, will sorely miss his honesty, and his unfailing trust in the grace of God. A grace that goes beyond anything that any of us expects. He gave us all a window into that grace, and for that I am deeply grateful.

May he rejoice in the presence of his Lord, and may that same Lord comfort his family and friends in their time of loss.

A Vision for the Future

What’s that scripture about “without vision the people perish?”

That’s pretty much how I have felt the past several months – like I am perishing. There’s been a war going on inside myself between the easy path – just go with the evangelical flow and live the typical American Christian lifestyle, which with three young kids is – trust me – very tempting, and the deeper path I believe God has revealed to me over the course of the past couple of years through any number of his servants who are already walking down that path.

But instead of choosing one vision or the other, I have been basically adrift – unwilling to “settle” for the easier path, but afraid that the deeper path is too difficult for a family to pursue. So I’ve been stuck in neutral, and in-and-out of depression because of it.

This is, of course, compounded by the fact that no-one – not my wife, not my church, not my pastor – no-one – is really thinking about the same kinds of things I am right now. It makes no sense to them. Why would I want to go to an Episcopal church on occasion? Why do I find the communion administered at my church lacking? Why would I choose to recite rote prayers at regular intervals? What’s with all of the candles and the sign of the cross? And am I crazy to suggest that perhaps we should be trying to find a way to live in community with other followers of Christ?

Perhaps I am crazy, but it doesn’t help that I’m the only one with this particular brand of craziness in my church.

And yet online I’ve found so many other fellow travelers. Through teachers such as Richard Rohr and Brian McLaren I’ve learned a great deal about the wealth that exists in the broader church, outside of the parochial confines of evangelicalism which largely rejected tradition in the 20th century. Which, of course, helps me feel a little more sane.

So rather than just perish, I figured it might be a good idea to try to construct a vision for what this “deeper path” might look like in my and my family’s life. To start, I wanted to lay out what it might look like in the 5-10 year time horizon. So here are my dreams:

In five to ten years, I would like to be living in the same neighborhood with a number of other families and others who are committed to a common rule of life – centered around a spiritual rhythm, engagement in the missio Dei in our neighborhood, and the pro-active embrace of Christian community for both those inside and outside of our community.

I would like to together start non-profit businesses which could act as “third spaces” for our community and the neighborhood in which we live. Instead of making people come to church, we would have the church come to them – both through these businesses and of course through our interactions with our neighbors.

I strongly desire to have my children see a faith that is active in the world – loving the poor, caring for the hurting, passionately coming to God in prayer, contemplation, and worship. A faith that welcomes all to the table, and that while seeking actively to understand the truth, is humble enough to accept those who may have different understandings without judgement, condemnation, or a need to be “right.”

Now, I can’t see a path to there at this point. I don’t know anyone else who shares this vision. I can’t imagine myself having the time to pursue this and still have any semblance of a family life. And, to be honest, I’ve had Christian community blow up in my face so many times in the past that I have a hard time believing something like this is even possible.

But for the coming year, I would like to start small.

Try to find a way for my family to serve the poor at least once a month.

Consistently pray at least the morning and evening office every day.

Find time at least once a week to sit in silence before God.

Have an extended time with God at least once a month.

Find a way to start sharing the spiritual disciplines I am learning with my wife and kids, and anyone who will listen, to be perfectly honest.

Perhaps if I just start small, then next year God will give me some more steps to take. And maybe that 5-10 year vision will have a chance of coming true after all?

Missional Community

As God has led me in a new direction – post-evangelical, missional, and emerging – the reality of the disconnect between our lives as Christians in 21st century America and the lives I see modeled by Jesus, the disciples, and the early church has become ever more jarring. This is not to say that I have adopted a view which states that it is impossible to find and follow Christ as a “normal American Christian.” I am certain that God is present in the American church as He is present in His Church around the world.

But I think there’s more. We’re satisfied with the small glimpse of the kingdom of God which we allow ourselves when God wants us to experience much more of the fullness of His kingdom (remaining well aware that there is still more fullness to come when He brings about the new heaven and the new earth down the road).

So it is with this tension in mind that I am beginning to think seriously about what it might look like for myself, my family, and my friends to seek the greater presence of the Kingdom in our lives. And at least at this point, the idea I am toying with is something I am calling “missional community” (apologies to others who may have elaborated on this idea before or in better/different ways).

In my vision of “missional community,” a number of families and a number of singles would move into a neighborhood together with several goals in mind:

  • Living a missional lifestyle to befriend, love, and care for a specific group of people.
  • Pursuing community on a daily basis with others both inside and outside of the community.
  • Living common spiritual practices together to increase the depth of the members’ faith.
  • Giving sacrificially to ensure that other community members can remain in community regardless of difficult economic circumstances and that the needy outside of the community can be blessed.

I’m not quite sure that I would go as far as to call this type of community a “missional order” or a “New Monastic” one, but certainly it draws from that movement.

I’m sure I will have more to say on this topic over time, but this is just a beginning of the thought process for me. In the end, whether it comes into being is mostly a factor of whether it is God or myself who has set these thoughts in motion.