Non-Religious Christian Spirituality


proof of love

Love isn’t love if not freely chosen.
Love isn’t perfect until it sets the beloved perfectly free.

So the ability to choose not-love is absolutely necessary for love to exist…
…which means the evil done in the world is really proof of love…

Have I overstated this? Maybe. Not sure. Increasingly don’t think so.

Since we’ve been writing on cave walls, evil has been a problem. Why do we do what we do? Why is it done to us? A whole branch of philosophy, theodicy, is dedicated to justifying God’s existence in the presence of evil…a real problem for those who believe in only one God. Polytheists can have good gods and bad gods—problem solved. Atheists have no problem at all, of course, and agnostics just shrug. Monotheists have Satan, but that doesn’t let God off the hook; buck still stops at God’s desk. If there is only one God who is all powerful and all good and yet evil exists, pick any two, but you can’t have all three. If God doesn’t stop evil, he’s not all good; if he can’t, not all powerful.

We grieve and rage over the evil we see in the world and in our families for good reason—we cry to God to relieve us of the evil that we and others create as if it never should have existed in our universe. Evil is always painful, sometimes unspeakably so, but what would a world really look like without evil ever chosen? Only place you’d ever find absolute uniformity of choice would be where there is no choice.

Choice is the key ingredient, the part of us created in God’s image. Without a free choice, love is not love. If it’s coerced or purchased in any way, it’s a violation at worst, a transaction at best, but how is it love? And if Merton is right, if love is really identification with the beloved from which all loving behavior and emotion flows, then the choice to see ourselves as intimately connected, one with each other and God, must be no less free.

If we’re really not preprogrammed, if our choices really are free, then it is a mathematical certainty that some will choose one way and others differently. That’s the nature of choice. I know how Genesis reads, but as idiomatic Hebrew expression of God granting the beginning of choice in the Garden, seems to me the possibility still exists that people choosing all sorts of different paths was also part of the plan. That the evil we create is a necessary component of the interaction of faith and love, that wounding at the hands of life’s evil is essential to the endurance that produces a perfect result—a depth and maturity as James describes at the beginning of his book. And though it’s characterized as a curse, it’s not God doing the cursing, it’s just us in our fear, not yet ready to make choices in love.

In other words, the evil we create in life is actually proof of the possibility of perfect love…proof that we, as beloved, really have been set perfectly free to choose. The only way to know a choice is free is to have freely chosen every alternative. And once we’ve freely chosen, we learn for ourselves which choices point in the direction of life.

What if God really is love?

What if love really is the perfect freedom to choose to connect, to identify, to hold the beloved in the same breath we hold ourselves? To see beauty instead of weakness or risk in the vulnerability necessary for connection? What if real love can or will only create that which is equally free? Free to love back. Doesn’t mean our unloving choices are not evil. Just necessary. Proof of freedom.
Proof of love.

And what if we believe this enough to actually live it, become free enough to set free?
What if what we create is also free enough to choose other than ourselves?
Then maybe we become living proof of love.

And evil will continue. But so will love.


preacher teacher

The purpose of a preacher is to persuade.
The purpose of a teacher is to make students ready to engage.

I’m a teacher.

Ultimately, I don’t care what you believe. But I care deeply how your beliefs affect your behavior and the quality of your relationships–that is, the quality of your life and every life you touch.

Belief is overrated; it’s only idea, the representation of reality small enough to survive the filter of your worldview. But what your beliefs allow you to do consistently is what we call faith–not what you think, but how you act–and how you act repeatedly over time creates the repeated experience we call trust.

Belief is idea. Faith is action. Trust is experience. Belief is only as important as the faith it makes possible and faith only as important as the trust it makes possible. Because trust is what makes relationship possible.

Always approximate, no one has a completely accurate belief system. No one. Yet we preach and persuade, denigrate and excommunicate over thoughts we can’t even know for certain are true. And all the while, what is concrete and inescapably real are the choices and actions we absolutely know are true or false by their ability to connect or divide our relationships.

It’s not my job to tell anyone what to believe. Belief merely received is untested, and untested belief is untrusted, has no ability to connect…but can certainly divide. What I teach is what I’ve become convinced of, what I’ve tested for years in the laboratory of my life, risked my choices and actions on and proved to myself whether it has power to bind relationship. But reduced to words, these convictions become belief again, idea again in the student’s mind. Untested. Untrusted.

All I can tell you is what I am convinced of. Go become convinced of what you are convinced of.

Because persuasion is overrated too. The only person we will ever convince of anything is ourselves, living the truth we believe we believe until we experience its truth in the nature of our relationships. And if the way you express your truth is different than the way I express mine, no matter. It’s not important that we see eye to eye, only that we can stand shoulder to shoulder, connected to each other and everyone we meet along the way.

submarine moment

An image sticks with me.

Yesterday in a group discussing the importance of presence in our lives, we talked about how rarely our thoughts actually match what we’re doing at the moment. Who we’re with. I ask each person if there’s a remembered moment when they were fully present, a moment so intensely overflowing there was no space for even a single stray thought.

A young woman tells us that when she was little, her father was in the Navy and would be at sea up to six months at a time. In a submarine, no less. After what was a lifetime to a little one, when the big day came, she and her brother would sit side by side on the docks waiting for the low ship to come in. She didn’t describe, so I imagine the scene from a viewpoint three feet off the ground: towering adults, bright flags and uniforms, huge white numbers on impossibly tall and complicated gray ships, children running, brash music from a shiny horn band… I have no idea if it looked like that. But I want it to.

Then the submarine docking, she and her brother staring laser-like at the hatch, nothing existing but the hatch as it swings up and men emerge–the moment she recognizes her father’s face, watching him make his way ashore, the running, the squealing, the jumping into a long embrace that she can still close her eyes and feel after all these years, after all the disappointments and betrayals and failings her life has delivered since…that moment untouched, undimmed, purely what it always was.

And what was she thinking about at that moment?

There are no thoughts, no words that can survive a moment like that.
She was just there. Or just not.

It’s a moment from someone else’s childhood. But I can see it too. Imagine as if being there. And I love the imagined memory. I connect it to moments of my own and add it to the collection. Older I get, the more I realize that this life is all about presence. Really being where we are, all thoughts banished except those directly related to our present duties. How much life is missed without presence, and how much life could be rescued, restored, relieved with it? Our mistake is to think that some moments are more important than others, that we have to wait for intense events to bring our presence out of hiding the way dusk brings out those big-eyed night creatures. Our mistake is to think that some moments don’t really count, are not submarine moments and can be thought through zombie-like, focused on some other moment that does. Our mistake is to think.

Every moment is a submarine moment, if I just watch the hatch. If everything in me and about me is involved in the hatch, the face that emerges, I will never miss the boat. I will never live an insigificant moment.

what change may come

I don’t envy people my age who find themselves dating again…or still. Dating is hard enough at any age–like being on permanent audition–but the older we get, it seems our attitudes and eccentricities, like our skin, become increasingly non-elastic.  Actually it’s probably an advantage to know that what you see in your date, for better or worse, is what you’re going to get; you can make your decision based on what really is rather than hope to be. Or not to be.

As a pastor if I didn’t believe people could change, I couldn’t do my job. But getting older, I’m realizing that I may be using the wrong word. Anyone who’s raised children knows that there are little personalities set early on in each little body that you as parent had absolutely nothing to do with implanting. It’s as if we’re hardwired by age six or seven with those personality pairs: introvert/extrovert, sensing/intuition, thinking/feeling, judging/perceiving and basic attitudes like optimism and pessimism, ambition, perseverance, passion…where does all that come from and once established, does it ever really change?

In the Gospels, Peter and Paul are practically psychological case studies. Their personalities were so strong that they are still vibrantly preserved after two thousand years of copying and translating ancient texts. Peter is impetuous and headstrong–always the first to speak and act: jumping out of his boat to walk on water and again to quickly reach Jesus cooking breakfast on the beach, blurting out answers to Jesus’ questions that as often earned rebuke as praise, refusing to have his feet washed, and cutting off the ear of the high priest’s servant. And that’s  just the canonical gospels. In non-canonical literature like the Gospel of Mary, Peter picks a fight with Mary Magdelene earning a rebuke from Matthew, and as tradition tells it, insisted on being crucified upside down to avoid any perceived parity with Jesus. He was the same before and after Jesus called him; before and after finding his faith.

Paul is passionately loyal to the institution of his faith as a Jew, persecuting and killing the Jews he believes are heretically following Jesus. After his conversion he is passionately loyal to the institution of his faith as a Christian, planting churches, fearless speaking truth to power, and facing a never ending string of physical and emotional firestorms. He was the same before and after his Damascus visions; before and after finding his faith.

It seems who each man was at age seven was who he was as he took his last breath. Popeye would say, I yam what I yam, yet at the same time, each man would have been barely recognizable to the casual observer before and after something profound happened in their lives. Maybe people can change, maybe they can’t. But we all can be transformed. Peter’s impetuousness and Paul’s passion never changed, but those traits were absolutely transformed, channeled in completely different directions once they began to understand who they really were. Their brush with Jesus, with complete integrity and oneness of purpose created a spiritual heat that once embraced, began burning off layers of falseness and fears accrued over a lifetime–until only who they were born to be eventually remained. Free from fearful obsessions and compulsions, impetuousness was transformed from irresponsible to inspiring and passion from persecution to perseverance.

Do people really change? Your date may be wondering, watching you from across the dinner table. It’s the wrong question. Are you transformed? Are you someone who has faced the furnace? Has the heat and abrasion of your passage along the way removed enough of what is not really you to let the seven year old come out and play? At the moment of transformation, our greatest liabilities become our greatest strengths, and our greatest ability to hurt another becomes our greatest ability to bless.

At the moment of transformation, the question of change is moot.

Message delivered @ theeffect, 5/27/12. Here for audio message. Full message archive.

great things

My wife and I and our two boys were driving somewhere I forget–the destination as always being much less important than the moving together in a comfortable, dedicated space. Brennan, our four year old, had brought his then favorite stuffed playmate with him–it changes every week or so–and made a huge fuss about being sure Elmo had his seat belt on. When he finally got Sean, our twelve year old, to help buckle him up, the car quieted down nicely. So I turn around to see this little red guy relaxed and belted and apparently reading along in Sean’s book, and as the smile spread across my face two things struck me: first, I had to get a picture…which took several stoplights…and secondly, how important the small things are…

Does your faith life make you feel like this?

Mother Teresa said that in this life, we cannot do great things, we can only do small things with great love. We spend a lot of time looking for great things–great things to do that will make great differences for the greatest number of people over the greatest length of time. But great things can be seductive for all the wrong reasons. When people really are writers, they write. Artists draw. Golfers golf. Fish swim. Can’t keep them from it; it’s who they are. They may dream of the big time, but in the meantime, they’ll draw or write on napkins if they have to, and every hallway is a fairway. Or a green. As people of faith, sometimes we forget that the quality of our love is not based on the greatness of the result, but simply on the irresistible desire to connect. We forget that it’s the connection itself that is the only valuable thing in life. We knew when we were four, but we forget.

What if I really could live as if great outcomes didn’t matter, as if the process to outcome were all this life was ever intended to be about, and all that we’re here to explore, experience, and exhume is only and ever process… What if I could live real life with the abandon of a board game: cheerfully willing to risk it all, laughing at losses and gains, knowing that in the end we’ll just gather up all the little dollar bills and buildings and put them back in the box for next time–their value existing only in the real time passage of the game?

If we’re really people of faith, we’re never caught waiting for a great thing; you can’t keep us from connecting in every tiny detail of life. From an encouraging word to a smile or a hand on a shoulder at just the right moment, it’s about caring enough, paying attention enough to know when and how. And in that moment, the smallest thing becomes great–even if it’s just belting in Elmo for a concerned four year old.


redefining pointless

So I’m on my way in to an event at our faith community. We’ve got a well-known guest musician coming in, there are additional details to deal with, I’m running late, and nearly out of gas. Not a good combination. Of course the gas station is packed, and I’m stuck amidst confused lines trying to maneuver into the one that will put the pump on the right side of the van. I feel tension mounting and time ticking as I finally get a receipt and swing around to escape. One more gauntlet to run: the car wash next to the station is also full tilt, and just as I’m about to make the street, a freshly washed sedan pulls out in front of me from the drying area. Hitting brakes, last straw poking last nerve, I look down from van height into the sedan to see a small round face pressed to the driver’s window looking up at me from behind thick glasses.

And he’s not just looking but hugely, face splittingly ginning and waving and it’s a full beat or two until I realize that he’s a car wash employee, and his round face is Down Syndrome. I feel tension deflate; the frustration and anger and things I wanted to shout out the window lay on the floor as I realize his grin and hand are saying: Look at me! Isn’t this great? I get to drive these cars, can you believe it? He couldn’t have been more excited, prouder of himself if he’d won Pulitzer or Presidency. Pure unadulterated elation for what most of us would be ashamed to admit.

When my wife became pregnant with our youngest child at 42, the first thing the nurse asked with the positive test still in her hand: Do you want to keep it? The possibility of Down’s or spina bifida, the complications of pregnancy and child rearing later in life–did we want that?

We all have our notions of what is pointless in life. Substandard jobs, disabilities, birth defects contribute. What is a pointless life? One that doesn’t lead to the outcomes we desire? Is life all about outcome? We live that way. All our moments lined up and pointed at distant outcomes that define our experience herenow, defer our experience of anything at all in favor of ever receding expectation. When Jesus’ followers berate a woman for pouring expensive perfume over Jesus’ head, wasting what could have been sold and given to the poor, Jesus berates them back saying: You will always have the poor with you, but you will not always have me. Is caring for the poor pointless because there will always be poor among us? Is there any value to acts that begin and fully end herenow and don’t point to discernable outcomes?

If we can’t find value apart from outcome, we will never find contentment. Never enter Kingdom. Never breathe from our heels or smile from our ears because we get to drive a car forty feet across a parking lot. We’ll never learn that moments don’t point or lead anywhere, only our minds do that, taking us with them out of the only perfect place we’ll ever occupy: this here, this now.

We need to redefine pointless.

Pointless is not a life that doesn’t lead to expected outcome.
Pointless is never once living as if you’d rather be a Down Syndrome boy driving a freshly washed car than a frustrated pastor on the way to a gig.

Also see Chimps and Scientists

Message delivered @ theeffect, 5/20/12. Here for audio message. Full message archive.

first person

Today my sixteen year old son and I went out to get bagels and cream cheese. Between mouthfuls I asked about the new boy who came over last night with the usual neighborhood friends to hang in the back room. Turns out he’s another sixteen year old who came from Germany to stay with my son’s friend over the summer. I asked if he was an exchange student: didn’t know about the exchange part; he’s just staying for five weeks. Ok, so how’s his English?: pretty good but heavy accent. Predictable, is he fitting in with the group?: not really, he’s not shy, just kind of rude and swears a lot–and he’s an atheist.

He said the last word with emphasis, as if it either explained everything or as he would’ve said he was a Nepalese throat singer or human amphibian or a Democrat or something else he’s never encountered in Orange County, CA. What can I say, my son is a preacher’s kid in a fairly red county and has certain experiential deficits.

I smiled and asked if the boy’s family was atheistic, and he said yes, and I said that was becoming common in Europe, that most kids grow up believing what their schools and parents and family believe, and that he still had plenty of time to figure out what he wanted to believe for himself–not to worry. I told my son that he probably believed in God now mostly because we do, but there would come a time in his life when that would not be enough. To believe what others believe only because they say it loudly or longly enough, to have not actually lived and experienced and become convinced of what we are convinced of will only take us so far. In the end, it’s all first person or nothing; heresay will never get us through life’s muggings. And then I had to explain mid-life crises and tell a bit of my story and other things that make sixteen year old eyes roll back.

But he came around to ask why atheism was common in Europe, and I told him that they were on a curve that was ahead of ours here in America. I gave him the dos millennial flyover of how western Europe struggled under a thousand years of Roman Catholic rule that became so politicized and corrupt as to spark the Protestant Reformation that became so intellectual and legal that by the time two world wars leveled most of the continent and unleashed horrors on a scale previously uncontemplated, there was practically no faith left in Church and not much trust in God. I told him that new ideas called post-modern and new scientific discoveries called quantum were finding ways to explain the world without God, that old and new ideas about the role of government were fnding ways to explain society without Church, and that Church–facing its own mid-life crisis–had lost its connection with a deeper Spirit, with its own existential meaning and purpose…leaving it too confused to balance all that unGod weight.

I didn’t actually say it that way, but he got the gist and astutely wanted to know that if Europe was only ahead of us on the curve, were we going to end up post church, post Christian, and post theistic as well? He didn’t actually say it that way either, but I got the gist, and said yes, but… Yes, the same secular forces (I defined that for him) are at work here as in Europe and the big church denominations here had become almost as indistiguishable from those secular forces and irrelevant to spiritual lives, and if nothing altered that course then in twenty or thirty years, yes, we would look like Europe. But…there is a growing movement here, especially among young people who are sincerely searching for an authentic spiritual experience that can change everything. They know that the emperor has no clothes and are not shy about saying so–that much of Church practice and religion have become part of the problem and that the only way back is first person: avoiding heresay through a willingness to exchange old forms for the intimate, personal experience of a living God that convinces and empowers and authorizes the communal expression of spiritual experience that is all religion ever was in the first place.

I told my son that when enough of us have asked the hard questions, lived our faith first person, become convinced of what we are convinced of–when we see that conviction mirrored in the experiences expressed in our scriptures and the lives of those who leave people better than they found them, then we move out on another curve, one that will part ways with Europe’s and our own apparent trajectories.

The Church has always seen itself as the leader of its people and the gateway to the things of God. I told my son that the time has come for people to find the gate themselves and lead their Church back toward relevance and connection to the God it was only entrusted never to obscure.

I think I told him all that. If not, I should have.

See this article on the collapse of the modern church from a Canadian point of view.

properly doubtful

If you’ve never doubted your faith, you’re not taking it seriously enough. Some thoughts on the proper place of doubt…

Doubt is a pain too lonely to know that faith is his twin brother.
Khalil Gibran

Faith keeps many doubts in her pay. If I could not doubt, I should not believe.
Henry David Thoreau

Faith which does not doubt is dead faith.
Miguel de Unamuno

Doubt isn’t the opposite of faith; it is an element of faith.
Paul Tillich

blinded by expectation

At the beginning of holy week, we take a look at Palm Sunday from the point of view of all the different groups of people who watched Jesus enter the city that day. Riding through Jerusalem’s gates on the foal of a donkey not only fulfilled certain prophetic scriptures, it also unmistakably signaled to the watching cultures that Jesus came in peace. To bring war or insurrection, he would’ve ridden a horse. The symbolism was unmistakable, but everyone mistook it anyway. The waving and laying of palms before a king [the symbol of triumph throughout the ancient world] and the hosanna that was being shouted by the people [literally: hoshiiah na–save us we beseach you] was enough to set both Jewish and Roman leaders’ teeth on edge. For everyone understood that this was how the common people and the Zealots were seeing Jesus–as a political and military messiah come drive out the Romans and re-establish the promised Hebrew throne. So the Romans and Jewish authorities both saw him then as a threat to their respective power bases and planned accordingly, regardless of Jesus’ teaching and the symbolism of his entry that day. And what of Jesus’ closest followers? What did they see? They were still fighting over their own positions in the coming Kingdom, and mistook the unmistakable Jesus as well. The most important question we can ask ourselves is what we expect of Jesus as he rides into our lives each day. Is he the one we expect to wipe away our obstacles and difficult circumstances in life? Is he a threat to our power base, our sense of who we are and how we survive? Are we looking to ride his coattails into some greater position for ourselves? Jesus was very clear about who he was and who he still is. We need to make sure we’re not mistaking his unmistakable signs, and blinded by our expectations, seeing only what we wish to see.

Message delivered @ theeffect, 4/1/12. Here for audio message.

a post-christian conversation

Recently had a fascinating email string/conversation with an old friend of mine. We go back some 25 years–used play in bands together from the early 80s. With that kind of history, it’s hard to hide much from each other. So here’s a post-Christian talking to a post-theologian in a post-modern world. My friend Chris gave me permission to post (pun unintended) portions of our string here, but it’s long enough that I published it to theeffect site instead. You can get it here.