If you’re a long time reader of my work (thanks Mom!) you’ve likely come to the not-so-startling conclusion that a great deal of my ramblings are primarily concerned with my struggles, disagreements, dissatisfactions, and overall existential and sometimes very physical inabilities to be a pastor.
It has been my OVERWHELMING experience whenever feelings of angst and confusion emerge amongst a decidedly older set, they are quickly dispatched with a hasty word about the indolence of youth and the misguided loftiness of our opinions about work, meaning, and the everything.
Usually, this quite wordy description comes out sounding a bit more like:
“Welcome to the real world. This is how life actually is. Everyone needs a job, and this is yours.”
To which we all respond gratefully, without even a hint of sarcasm:
But, much like that piece of spinach in your friend’s teeth at which you simply cannot stop staring, my anxiety and growing confusion about the nature, role, and purpose of religion in the 21st century refuses to be quieted. I might say, this is chiefly because my own discomfort emerges (however surprisingly for someone in their late 20s) from a place deeper than an insatiable desire to stay up late into the night arguing with Japanese middle schoolers on XBOX Live about who is and is not a NOOB.
“Enough Yuki! I said no rocket launchers!”
It isn’t the meetings, copies, TPS reports, emails, or even the dockers, that continually cause me moments of pause about the direction and goal of my life, but rather, it’s the entire enterprise to which these ends push. What I mean is that much of my work is spent attempting to, sometimes desperately and other times half-heartedly, convince people that the God they’ve heard about (and found distasteful) for much of their lives is WAY different this time.
In short, I feel very much like the friend of a desperate ex pleading with a jilted lover on her behalf:
“I know how it was when you guys were together, but I just want you to know: she’s changed man. It’s gonna be WAY different this time. Just call her back. Yeah, I know she said if you ever broke up with her she would have you tortured for the better part of eternity, but people say crazy things when they’re in love!”
If you find my description of “the pastorate,” misguided and cynical, I might reluctantly ask you to peruse the aisles of your local Christian bookseller:
yes, you’ll actually have to go inside.
yes, that is a t-shirt prostituting the mountain dew logo in an effort to convince you to “do the Jew”.
no, they don’t have the new Yeezus album.
yes, those are magnets people put on the back bumper of their cars.
no, it isn’t a good idea.
yes, kirk cameron is still alive and making movies with Bible study guides INCLUDED!
After wading through piles of plastic wrapped refuse compliments of the Christian Industrial Complex, what you’ll find is shelf after shelf of books all seeking to address the same topic:
TALKING VEGETABLES! (awesome, but no.)
PREDICTING THE NEXT REPUBLICAN PRIMARY! (you’re getting warmer)
…the lost generation. (aka: me!)
With titles like: You Lost Me: Why Young Christians are leaving the Church, Christianity after Religion, The Next Christians, Almost Christian, unChristian, Lost in Transition, Generation Ex-Christian, Lost and Found, When They Turn Away
and my personal favorite:
Generation iY: Our Last Chance to Save Their Future
Now, these books aren’t altogether bad (some are), and many represent a genuine desire on the part of authors, pastors, and parents to remain engaged and connected to an increasingly diffuse generation of unemployed and overeducated pajama-panted wanderers. My only problem with this task is, quite often, when I stop long enough to listen to those who ended their relationship with god, I find that I don’t really want them to work it out.
As a matter of fact, when I encounter their stories of toxicity, shame, fear, abuse, and rejection at the hands of the god with whom they were in relationship, I find myself questioning my own fidelity to this divine being and his gospel currently employed (albeit with a better soundtrack) to reach my generation.
(Author, prophet, and blogger Rachel Held Evans echoes these same sentiments brilliantly in her recent piece on Millennials and the church for CNN here)
These days it seems that the Church comes across less like a powerful force of redemptive love in the world and more like that kid from middle school who heard somewhere down the line that persistence pays off…especially in dating.
So he’s waiting for you at your locker.
And he’s meticulously cut out letters from your favorite magazine to create a terrifying poem expressing his undying 7th grade love for you.
And now, years later, he’s sleeping outside your house in a parked rented van with one of those porthole windows in the back corner.
That’s the thing about no, it means no for 7th grade casanovas, and for bloated, oversized, top-heavy religious institutions.
Not to mention, we’re all beginning to realize your efforts, and books, and restraining order producing statistical research into the sleeping and mating habits of people in their mid-20s isn’t (try as you might to argue the contrary) about how much we need you.
It’s about how much you need us:
to stay viable
to keep the lights on
to maintain control.
During a conversation with some of his closest followers, Jesus comments that if people desire to discover profound meaning in life (addressing, I would say, the central reason for following any spiritual teacher)
they would actually have to lose their lives in the process.
In his understanding, the way of faith and life is found not by fighting tooth and nail for perpetuity, security, and survival in a waste land of religious pluralism (as if all that separated the way of Jesus from other religious and imperial faiths involved a simple shift in vocabulary and honored deity), but in releasing our desire for control, power and salvation for the sake of the world and the other lives, truths, and ways we find humming all around us.
Because if there’s anything the execution of Jesus teaches us, it’s that reconciliation and redemption require sacrifice, but that which is sacrificed in order to bring them about isn’t some other faith, or truth, or doubt, or living/breathing/thinking/feeling human being
No, in the Christian story God sacrifices God’s self on the altar of the world and invites us to do the very same thing.
This is true for people, and what’s true for people (thanks to the Supreme Court) is true for organizations and institutions (not to mention corporations!).
So, in your grasping for power
and political might
all you’ve ended up doing is reminding us of why we broke the whole thing off in the first place.
Because, inevitably, when we don’t show up, or don’t stick around, or don’t volunteer, or don’t give our money or resources to your organization liked you’d hoped we would when you started this whole process, you’re going to want to exasperatedly throw up your hands in anger, write us off as lazy, confused, and faithless, and give up the whole endeavor altogether.
And in so doing, revealing to us (much like those red-faced fathers screaming at their 9-year-olds for striking out in Little League) what we believed to be true all along:
this was always about you.
But, and this is a Sir-Mix-A-Lot sized but(t), when we encounter a community who, instead of narcissistically and fearfully sacrificing all those outside its tribe on the altar of its own survival, starts placing not only its musical preferences, but itself, its programs, its salaries, and even its truth on the altar of the neighborhoods, sexualities, races, politics, and beliefs of the people it meets:
we discover something both expected and quite unexpected.
We find that while some things die, pass away, outlive their necessity, and unsurprisingly never get up off the mat:
God isn’t one of these things.
And, for the record neither is sacrificial, militantly hopeful, and buoyantly optimistic love.
There is a frightening freedom that comes with this kind of individual and organizational release.
A freedom that liberates us to be wrong
to be human
to stop selling
to stop hoarding, owning, and cornering truth
to be patient
to be neighborly
to be faithful
to be generous
and, much like those first women to visit the empty tomb 2000 years ago:
to celebrate, and cry, and scream, and cheer with reckless and confusing abandon.
We might even say, much like that stained glass window magnet from the Christian bookstore you walked into at my request attests:
A freedom that allows us, counterintuitively, to “let go and let God”
whatever that means.