Christianity After Religion: The End Of Church And The Birth Of A New Spiritual Awakening

Christianity After Religion: The End Of Church And The Birth Of A New Spiritual Awakening
by Diana Butler Bass

I started this book months ago and only got halfway through it before things got nuts at church and I never picked it up again. I finished it on vacation and I’m so glad I did. Diana Butler Bass talks about the fact that we are going through a spiritual awakening. She addressed the issue of people claiming to be “spiritual but not religious” – this is something a lot of clergy are critical of, but something I have always embraced. She finally affirmed “why” for me.

Everyone says that the church is “dying” and I really don’t think that’s true. I think the church is changing, not dying. Yes, things are going to look a little bit different, but with each new generation the world always looks a little bit different. I love the church that I grew up in, but I’m kind of excited to have the opportunity to explore my faith as the structures around me change. I WANT to think about faith over religion, deepen my own sense of spiritual understanding.

Anyway …

“We live in a time of momentous historical change that is both exhilarating and frightening.”

“To awaken spiritually means that we develop a new awareness of God’s energy in the world in order to discern what is needed to open the possibilities for human flourishing. Discernment leads to new understandings of self, neighbor, and God – a vision of what can and should be. Thus, awakening demands we act upon the new vision. Wake up, discern, imagine, and do. What will make a difference to the future is awakening to a faith that fully communicates God’s love – a love that transforms how we believe, what we do, and who we are in the world.”

“To say that on is ‘spiritual but not religious’ or ‘spiritual and religious’ is often a way of saying, ‘I am dissatisfied with the way things are, and I want to find a new way of connecting with God, my neighbor, and my own life.’ It might not be a thoughtless mantra at a ll – in many cases, it may well be a considered commentary on religious institutions, doctrine, and piety.” <;- AMEN.

“The religious model that once worked so well serving to educate, spiritually enliven, and socially elevate so many does not accomplish those goals as well any longer.”

“We need religion imbued with the spirit of shared humanity and hope, not religions that divide and further fracture the future.”

“To be spiritual and religious is to call for a new wholeness of experience and reason, to restitch experience with human wisdom and to renew reason through an experience of awe. Thus, the path of Christian faith in a postreligious age must be that of experiential belief in which the heart takes the lead in believing.”

“Over the centuries, theologies have argues that the Christian church began with Peter’s confession to Jesus: ‘You are the Messiah’ (Matt. 16:16). After Peter say that Jesus is that long-awaited redeemer, Jesus calls Peter ‘the rock’ and says that upon this ‘rock’ he will build his church. In a very real way, however, the church began long before that confession. It began when Jesus called out, ‘Follow me,’ and his friends and neighbors left their old lives and started a new community. A dozen men and a band of women joined Jesus and one another in a journey of faith and sharing and compassion. Christianity did not begin with a confession. It began with an invitation into friendship, into creating a new community, into forming relationships based on love and service.” <;- Jesus still says, 'Follow me'.

“The Fourth Great Awakening is not a quest to escape the world. Instead, it moves into the heart of the world, facing the challenges head-on to take what is old – failed institutions, scarred landscapes, wearies religions, a wounded planet – and make them workable and humane in the service of global community. No miracles here. God does not heal without human hands. The hard work is in the possibility.” <;- Whoa.

“All the world’s a stage, the theater of God’s divine drama. The more we rehearse, the better we become at our parts.”

Humble Extremists

What a wonderful morning in worship! I baptized two beautiful two-month old baby girls, Sarah was was still in town and our friends from Atlanta, George and Corey, were in the area and drove in for church!

If I see the baptism shots pop up on Facebook, I’ll share them. The girls were precious!

Here’s today’s sermon … enjoy!

2 Corinthians 6:1-13

Humble Extremists

Bruce stopped in to see me on Tuesday morning after bible study.

“How was bible study?” he asked me.

“It was good,” I said. “Paul got flogged.”

“Lovely.”

This spring, the Tuesday morning bible study group and I have been reading through the Book of Acts. To be quite honest, I was not sure whether or not I would enjoy this particular study. I have always thought that Paul was something of an arrogant narcissistic chauvinist, so I was not really looking forward to reading about his journeys for ten weeks.

However – something bizarre happened to me throughout the course of the bible study. I actually started to feel sorry for Paul. And not only that, I think I started to (ugh) empathize with him! It is not easy to be in ministry; it is not easy to be in the middle of conflict and not be able to fix it; and it is not easy to speak and feel like no one is listening (not that I know any of this from experience or anything). Paul was not traveling an easy journey.

Paul’s ministry, in particular, was challenging. One of the reasons that I – along with some of the members of the bible study – started to feel sorry for him was because he endured physical hardships. He was entering these communities that were living in extreme dysfunction and trying to share with them the gospel message and, in response, he was being beaten, jailed, stoned, flogged and threatened with death. I started to think that maybe he came off so arrogant because he was trying to protect himself from the pain of being in ministry.

I read a commentary on this passage this week, written by a UCC pastor named of John McFadden. Rev. McFadden serves at the First Congregational United Church of Christ in Appleton, Wisconsin. This is what he had to say about what it must have been like for Paul to endure such a challenging journey through ministry:

A text from an unknown sage that every pastor has occasion to cite somewhere in the course of parish ministry is this: “The reason that fights in churches get so vicious is that the stakes are so low.” Trivial issues peripheral to the mission of the church—the color of the new carpeting in the fellowship hall, dress codes for junior high dances—consume a disproportionate share of time and energy and sometimes lead to outright conflict.

While the Christian community in Corinth likely did not struggle with decorating issues, they appear to have bickered over almost everything else. A colleague who serves a large, affluent suburban parish once confessed that she finds Paul’s letters to the Corinthians disturbing precisely because they are so relevant to her setting, portraying as they do a congregation whose members were far more interested in the pursuit of personal spiritual “knowledge” than the greater good of the community. Paul may have defused a crisis in the Corinthian church through his “severe letter,” but it remains a community that is divided, distracted, and self-preoccupied, reconciled with neither God nor one another.

So apparently I am not the only one who feels conflicted about Paul. McFadden points out that Paul, like many ministers throughout the years and today, was doing the best that he could to minister in the midst of divisive and dire conflict. Perhaps he had to take extreme measures in order to survive.

McFadden goes on to say:

In the midst of this narcissism, competition, and conflict, Paul proclaims that far more is at stake than the “spirituality of the week.” The radical new way of life offered in the gospel of Christ, he insists, demands total allegiance, even if the cost of that allegiance is the kind of suffering he himself has willingly endured: “afflictions, hardships, calamities, beatings, imprisonments” (vv.4-5).

“I have endured all of these things,” Paul was essentially saying. “Look at all that I have been through!” “I have suffered!” “I have suffered for a cause greater than myself!” “You cannot find any fault in my ministry because I have let nothing get in the way, not even the pain and aggravation that you people are causing me.”

Okay, so perhaps this is where Paul takes it one step too far. He all but said, “YOU PEOPLE ARE DRIVING ME CRAZY!” McFadden’s commentary continues:

The list goes on, and it makes us squirm for several reasons. We squirm for several reasons. We squirm first because it strikes us as unseemly for Paul to draw so much attention to his own sufferings. As pastors, we are taught to make reference to our own lives only in the form of humorous anecdotes or the occasional humble confession of personal failings and foibles. To lift one’s own life up as an example for others to follow or to speak of the costs we have paid for our discipleship is perceived as bragging; place ourselves above or apart from our congregations. In challenging the narcissism of the Corinthian community, Paul’s recitation of personal hardships strikes us as narcissistic in itself.

McFadden is right. No one in the church wants to hear me whine about my life or my job. Yes, sometimes I do feel like I have too much to do and not have enough time to do it; yes, sometimes when I am working I get aggravated or frustrated; yes, sometimes there are long days and sleepless nights. But isn’t that true for all of you? I do not think that ministry is somehow different from any other profession. The difficulties I face, I am sure, look very similar to the difficulties that you all face.

This is where I kind of want to say, “Paul – a little bit humility would be extremely helpful right about now.”

McFadden also points out that Paul’s martyr-like attitude could cause people to wonder how far, exactly, he was willing to go for his “cause”. He writes:

We squirm also because, in an era when fundamentalist extremism threatens the integrity of all faith traditions, we have lost our ability to distinguish between “passion” and “fanaticism.” What sort of Christians will willingly, even gladly, endure beatings and imprisonments for the sake of their faith? Extremists. Fanatics. People who fly planes into buildings or bomb abortion clinics. We have become frightened of passionate faith, faith that commands total loyalty and obedience. We maintain a safe distance from Kierkegaard’s precipice, embracing instead a gospel around moderation. {Feasting on the Word, Year B, Volume 3, Page 158}

“Embracing instead a gospel around moderation.”

What does a “gospel around moderation” look like? Is it possible to have faith in moderation? Are you really serious about your faith if you are not over the top? What does it mean to be passionate, yet not extreme? Is it possible to be confident and humble? Can we be committed to our ideas and still open to the ideas of others?

I have said it before and I am sure that I will say it again – I think, in this case, Paul got it wrong. We should not think of ourselves as martyrs suffering for a cause. The Christian faith is not some game that we should be trying to win. Church and faith and ministry should not turn into a comparative bickering match, with everyone trying to “one up” each other’s hardships. We are all simply individuals trying to live out our lives and our faith and exist in our chuch communities the best way that we know how.

I think that it is absolutely possible to be an extreme Christian without going over the top. I think that it is doable to be completely devout in your faith and not turn someone off in the way that you talk about it. I think that a little bit of humility does go a long way.

The Christian journey is not an easy one to take. It is not easy to outwardly express your faith in a day and age when extremists make headlines. I think that we all struggle in our lives and in our faith and in our leadership. But I am also starting to think that rather than constantly pointing out the challenges we face along our journeys to the people around us, perhaps we should start being grateful that those people are there to take the journey with us. I think that we should be confident in the choices that we are making, optimistic about the lives that we are living and grateful that God has put us all together in this community.

I think it is time to break the mold of what the rest of the world “thinks” and say with confidence and without the fear of being stereotyped, “I am a Christian and my faith is very important to me.” It is possible to be a humble extremist. I would argue that it is happening right here in this community. It is happening when we welcome children into our arms and make vows to them in baptism. It is happening throughout our mission and outreach projects. It is happening through our prayer shawl ministry, through our hospitality and through our involvement in the wider community. It is happening when we pray for and with one another. It is happening when dream visions about what the future will hold. And it is happening when we say with joy in our hearts and humble pride in our voices, “I am a member of the Rehoboth Congregational Church.”

Thank you all for taking this journey with me. I cannot wait to see what the future holds. Thanks be to God!

Amen.

Spiritual Authenticity

I am back at my office and have successfully retrieved my sermon. Bruce and I went to CT for the Super Bowl and just got back this morning. I love mini getaways!

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I did a lot of relaxing in front of this. 🙂

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Here’s the sermon – enjoy!

1 Corinthians 9:16-23

Spiritual Authenticity

What kind of Christian are you?

The second time I was in Honduras we were visiting one of our satellite programs in another village and Miguel explained to our group how this community did not have any Christian influences before they started working with the Mission. And literally as he was telling us this we drove past a huge Cathedral.

“But Miguel, what about that church?” my mom and I asked.

“Oh, they’re not Christian.” He responded. “They’re Catholic.”

We were confused.

You know, growing up I was always intrigued by my Catholic friends. Their church buildings were much more elaborate than the simple white church that I attended every week. Dress codes were stricter. They attended Confraternity of Christian Doctrine once a week, which meant that they all got to ride a different bus together after school while the rest of us just went home and wondered what happened at the mysterious “CCD”. They did not eat meat on Fridays. They “gave things up” for Lent. First Communions came in third grade and the girls got to go shopping for a new dress – I wanted to go shopping for a new dress! My church just seemed boring (no offense, mom) in comparison. I showed up on Sunday mornings. I went to Sunday School. I probably talked too much. I went home.

At least the Coffee Hour spread was good.

It wasn’t that I didn’t love my church – I just have always been intrigued by things that are a mystery to me. And as far as I was concerned, the Catholic Church – and the big Cathedrals and the First Communions and the funny looking Communion wafers and giving things up for Lent and CCD – were all a mystery to me.

So imagine my surprise later on in life when I found out that while, yes, my Catholic friends did share a different religious tradition from me, we all shared the same faith.

Imagine my even bigger surprise later, later on in life when I realized that people in my church, people who all shared a similar religious tradition, did not necessarily agree on absolutely everything. But they still all came together peacefully (well, most of the time) to worship and fellowship because of a shared faith.

This morning’s scripture comes to us from Paul’s letter to the church in Corinth. I have to be honest, the first couple of times I read this scripture, Paul kind of came off as a schizophrenic manipulator. “For though I am free with respect to all, I have made myself a slave to all,” Paul said, “so that I might win more of them.”

“To the Jews I became as a Jew, in order to win Jews.”

“To those under the law I become as one under the law … so that I might win those under the law.”

“To those outside the law I became as one outside the law … so that I might win those outside the law.”

“To the weak I became weak, so that I might win the weak.”

“I have become all things to all people, that I might by all means save someone.”

Every time I read this, I want to go back in time 2,000 years and ask the question, “But Paul, who are you?” We know who Paul can become, but we do not know who Paul really was. We know that Paul can pretty much act like anyone in order to win them over, but who is Paul? When I was working in the hospital, my supervisor used to say to me constantly, “Sarah what is your ‘True Self’?” and it drove me crazy because I never had any idea what she meant – but I find myself asking Paul the same question. “Paul, what is your ‘True Self’?”

There is also part of me that wants to go back in time and wring Paul’s neck because it seems like he is just playing the role of different people in order to “win them over”. He seemed to just be acting like whoever he was with in order to get them to follow him. In that regard, it seems very manipulative.

But I got to thinking this week. Maybe it is not that Paul was manipulating different types of people into following him into a particular faith. Maybe Paul was making a point that all different types of people are welcome in the faith that he was a part of.

Maybe it is not that Paul was manipulating different types of people into following him into a particular faith. Maybe Paul was making a point that all different types of people are welcome in the faith that he was a part of.

A few years ago the United Church of Christ launched a campaign called “God Is Still Speaking,” which opened up opportunities for churches and individuals to look at ways that God was – for lack of another phrase – still speaking in their lives and in their communities. During this campaign they started using the phrase, “No matter who you are or where you are one life’s journey, you are welcome here.”

“No matter who you are or where you are on life’s journey, you are welcome here.”

Male or female, rich or poor, old or young, black or white, student or teacher, single or married, happy or sad, thriving or struggling, traditional or nontraditional – no matter who you are or where you are on life’s journey, you are welcome here.

So maybe Paul was on to something. Maybe he wasn’t trying to be someone else in order to get them to be part of his faith. Maybe he was trying to tell them that whoever they were, they were welcome to be part of his faith. Maybe he was trying to let them know that they could find their ‘True Self’ by sharing his faith. Maybe he wanted to let them know that it was okay for them to be whoever their authentic spiritual self was.

Who is your authentic spiritual self?

Let’s face it – we are all different. Some of us grew up in this church or churches like it, some of us are former Catholics, Baptists or Methodists. Some of us did not grow up in any church. Some of us came here searching. Some of us came here just wanting to ask questions. Some of us crave the Sunday morning worship hour. Some of us crave the community involvement. Some of us want to teach. Some of us want to be taught. Some of us want to sing. Some of us want to listen. Some of us are comfortable expressing our faith loudly. Some of us experience our faith on a quieter level. Some of us feel confident in our beliefs. Some of us still aren’t quite sure what we believe. Some of us like traditional worship. Some of us like contemporary worship. Some of us feel called to serve inside this community. Some of us feel called to serve outside of this community. Some of us have a regular time of prayer and devotion every day. Some of us connect with God in less traditional ways, through art, music and nature.

And no matter who we are or where we are on our journey through life, we are all welcome here.

Who is your authentic spiritual self?

Author Anne Lamott in her book, Traveling Mercies: Some Thoughts On Faith, said:

It’s funny: I always imagined when I was a kid that adults had some kind of inner toolbox, full of shiny tools: the saw of discernment, the hammer of wisdom, the sandpaper of patience. But then when I grew up I found that life handed you these rusty bent old tools—friendships, prayer, conscience, honesty—and said, Do the best you can with these, they will have to do. And mostly, against all odds, they’re enough.

And do you know what? We are enough. Who we are is enough. Our ‘True Selves’ are enough. If we are authentic to who we are as spiritual people, faithful members of God’s church and believers in what Jesus taught and preached – even if we do not necessarily look or express our faith like the people around us – then we are enough.

As I got older, I realized there was no great mystery to the Catholic Church or to my Catholic friends. Did their buildings and worship look different from mine? Yes. Were their religious traditions different from mine? Yes. But they were just being spiritually authentic to who they were. And the people in my church (which really wasn’t that boring!) were being spiritually authentic to who they were. Our religion may have been different. But we all still shared the same faith.

Even in this church I look around and see diversity. Our religion may be different from one another’s. Our beliefs may be different from one another’s. But we all still share the same faith.

I think that if we peel away the layers of who we are called to be and what we are called to do, we would find that at the very core of it all, we are first and foremost called to be authentically us.

All things bright and beautiful, all creatures great and small. All things wise and wonderful, the God made them all.

No matter who you are or where you are on life’s journey – you are welcome here.

Amen.