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Monday Merton: Love Is Complete Nonviolence

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More than any other reason, I have felt compelled to read Thomas Merton because I want to learn how to be constructive and even loving in my opposition to those who support injustice and violence. Nonviolence and the pursuit of justice can be pursued in destructive and counterproductive ways.

I have needed Merton’s challenge to see the good in others with compassion and empathy, seeking their best, not merely seeking to “win” something against them:

“The tactic of nonviolence is a tactic of love that seeks the salvation and redemption of the opponent, not his castigation, humiliation and defeat. A pretended nonviolence that seeks to defeat and humiliate the adversary by spiritual instead of physical attack is little more than a confession of weakness. True nonviolence is totally different from this, and much more difficult. It strives to operate without hatred, without hostility, and without resentment. I works without aggression, taking the side of the good that it is able to find already present in the adversary.”

 

– Thomas Merton, Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander, 82

 

American Politics and My Thomas Merton Phase

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“We are ruled, and resign to let ourselves be ruled, by our own weakness and by the prejudices of those who, more guilty or more frustrated than ourselves, need to exercise great power. We let them. And we excuse our cowardice by letting ourselves be driven to violence under ‘obedience’ to tyrants. Thus, we think ourselves noble, dutiful, and brave. there is no truth in this. It is a betrayal of God, of humanity, and of our own selves. Auschwitz was built and managed by dutiful, obedient men who loved their country, and who proved to themselves they were good citizens by hating their country’s enemies.”

– Thomas Merton, Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander, pg. 53

I used to shelve Thomas Merton’s books in a New Jersey Borders Books and Music. I frequently wondered if he was some kind of heretic. He appeared to be a Catholic Monk, but a bunch of eastern religion authors really loved him. One even called him a Zen. His posture on all of his book covers resembled eastern writers, and some of his books specifically addressed eastern religion.

**RED FLAGS**

**RED FLAGS**

If I could have slapped a “Read with Discernment” sticker on his books, I would have considered it. After all, I was the keeper of the religion and philosophy sections. I also shelved the slightly zany metaphysics and the steamy erotica books—both categories could have used larger stickers on them in general. I still carried some of my personal grudges against the Catholic Church during that season of life—one my Catholic friends reminds me that I was raised “IRISH CATHOLIC.”

As I hit my peak of evangelical fervor during those years of attending seminary, shelving sometimes questionable books, and vigorously encouraging everyone to avoid the Left Behind series, a Catholic with connections in eastern religion like Merton appeared just about as far out of bounds as you could get from my perspective.

In the years that followed, I had a relatively standard faith melt down and clung to some semblance of Christianity primarily through praying the scriptures with the Divine Hours. When I no longer felt like I had much left of my faith to defend, I started reading some Catholic authors. I had already read a little bit of Henrí Nouwen and Brennan Manning at an evangelical university, so I felt safe to start with them. Enough people in my circles recommended Richard Rohr, so I dove into his books as well. In each case I plowed through a stack of books by each author. I couldn’t help noticing just how frequently Nouwen and Rohr mentioned Thomas Merton.

Maybe it was time to give him a try?

Tucked away in my stacks of theology books, I found a Merton book that had survived several purges and moves since I picked it up in 2008 at the Northshire Bookstore in Manchester Vermont. It had been on a sale table presumably because it hadn’t sold well. The book, titled The Echoing Silence, is a collection of short excerpts from Thomas Merton on writing. At the time, I figured that even if he was influenced by eastern religion, he had written quite a few books that sold well. He probably knew a thing or two about writing. Also, the book was cheap and it had a very appealing picture on the cover of Merton’s writing desk—sold.

As it turned out, Merton repeatedly blew me away with his insights on writing, faith, and many other topics from the 1950’s and 60’s. I especially enjoyed reading his personal letters that offered “off the record” commentaries on racism and communism in America in the 1960’s. His letter to James Baldwin, a favorite author of mine, praised Baldwin’s perception and insights.

As I grew familiar with Merton’s faith in his own words, as opposed to my impressions of his book covers and the views of slippery-slope obsessed evangelical websites, I benefited from his artful prose that cut to the heart of weighty topics without mincing words.

I knew that I needed to follow up with some other Merton books. I plowed through Thoughts in Solitude, his compilation of the desert fathers, and the New Seeds of Contemplation. I had started the Seven Storey Mountain, but then the 2016 American election ruined that, as it will surely ruin a great many things in my country.

Facing the existential, moral, religious, and legal crises that such a presidency brings to America, I craved guidance from someone who had faced similar problems from the standpoint of having his feet firmly planted in the rich soil of contemplation without cramming his mind with the paranoia of social media or the bombast and speculation of the news channels. Merton faced growing fears about a very likely nuclear strike from the Soviet Union, paranoia about Communist infiltration of America, and growing tensions over racial injustice. In other words, his world had more than enough to worry about.

My Christmas list this year was basically just: “Merton books.” I’ve been working through Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander, and it has offered a measure of comfort that one can be fully committed to ministering to the entire church while still taking strong stands for justice—including stands against the immoral actions of political parties.

Evangelicals have not historically hit it out of the park when it comes to pursuing justice in a non-partisan manner (although the Moral Monday movement and The Red Letter Christians are offering hope for a path forward). Even Billy Graham, an evangelical icon if there ever was one, finally softened his partisan political involvement after his friendship with Richard Nixon nearly ended his ministry altogether. In fact, Graham’s reputation was saved in part because a TIME magazine editor declined to publish his public endorsement of Nixon. Graham was deeply grateful for this and subsequently adopted a more hands-off approach to one political group or another.

In Merton I have found someone who was both hands-on in his approach to social justice and current events, while also maintaining compassion for all sides, keeping himself from being claimed by a particular political party.

I’ll be the first person to admit that over the last eight years of a Democratic president that I neglected to speak out against injustices and harmful policies until his final term. I want to find a way to reclaim a prophetic Christian voice in politics that works for God’s best for all people, even if that means having hard words at times for people who support certain politicians and policies.

When a politician votes to remove health coverage from millions of people who depend on it to stay alive, there isn’t a middle ground to stand on. One is either for death or life.

When a politician wants to gut laws that guarantee equality for oppressed minorities, one is either for justice of injustice. There is no polite way to accept the oppression of a person created in God’s image when such oppression denies that very status.

When a politician removes environmental protections that safeguard our water, air, and soil, then the world is either God’s good creation or just a meaningless pile of rubble and water that we can use however we please.

Merton wrote with sharp moral clarity about the misplaced paranoia of communism, our culture’s all too easy acceptance of mutual nuclear annihilation, the mind-numbing medication of entertainment, and the grievous moral failure of racism in America. He pushed his Catholic church to the limit, and he clearly opposed many Catholic leaders who all too easily embraced an oversimplified portrait of the fight against Communism. Of course, Merton also deftly dismantled the hollow atheism of the Soviet Union and its determination to offer order through a totalitarian regime.

As America enters a period where voting rights continue to be attacked, immigrants are hunted down, perpetual drone warfare rages on, propaganda drowns out the truth, and the threat of terrorism is called on trample the rights of others, the words and actions of a contemplative Christian who faced similar challenges in his own time has proven to be indispensable. Merton’s voice is hardly the only voice I’m seeking out, but my distance from the issues of his time offers a sharpened clarity into his perspective.

Christians (especially white Christians like myself) often say that they would have stood up for civil rights in the 1960’s. As Martin Luther King’s Letter from Birmingham Jail proves, many Christians urged King to be less disruptive in his useful of nonviolent protests and to wait for things to get better. I suspect that the current political situation may provide a similar test of just how much Christians today have embraced the Bible’s teachings that God desires his people to seek justice for those who are suffering:

Isaiah 58:2-3
“Yet day after day they seek me
and delight to know my ways,
as if they were a nation that practiced righteousness
and did not forsake the ordinance of their God;
they ask of me righteous judgments,
they delight to draw near to God.
“Why do we fast, but you do not see?
Why humble ourselves, but you do not notice?”
Look, you serve your own interest on your fast day,
and oppress all your workers.

Malachi 3:5
“I will be swift to bear witness against the sorcerers, against the adulterers, against those who swear falsely, against those who oppress the hired workers in their wages, the widow and the orphan, against those who thrust aside the alien, and do not fear me, says the Lord of hosts.”

We can disagree about which policies in our nation will best uphold these words from scripture, but ignoring them or violating with our laws are not an option if God’s Kingdom is our primary allegiance.

Today, I hear from a lot of Christians that we should be focused on only sharing the Gospel. Pastors and authors who make a living as speakers and writers are afraid to speak against injustice in America today lest they lose speaking engagements—and those who have spoken against the current administration have certainly lost speaking engagements. There are fractures in my own evangelical world between those who support our president and those who do not. If my career as a Christian author rests on lending even tacit support for such a man through my silence, then my faith is a flimsy, ramshackle thing that will soon collapse on itself.

As I think about the turmoil in my own evangelical subculture today, I imagine Thomas Merton writing at his neat little desk in his cabin. He encouraged civil rights leaders and artists. He built bridges across national boundaries with his fellow poets in Russia. He wrote about the failure of his Catholic Church to address the threat of nuclear warfare.

Merton may have lost some speaking engagements. His superiors may have censored him. But he was already sitting by himself in a secluded cabin in the woods outside of Louisville, Kentucky, occasionally instructing his fellow monks. To the eyes of the world, he had already lost. He was a zero, but then, that’s what he called himself. Rather than measuring the highs and lows of his influence, he committed himself to contemplation in isolation. From there he saw the issues of his day with a straightforward clarity that guided his writing and speaking. There was no cost/benefit analysis.

Merton sought the love of God and experienced divine union, calling others to this unity in love.

Merton saw the madness of his time and called it madness.

As I seek the words of Merton during this tumultuous time in my country’s history, I hope to become grounded in a similar love for all people that won’t back away from moral clarity. God knows we’ve tried to follow the advice of Christian leaders in megachurches, and that gave us a racist, xenophobic, pathological liar, demagogue as our president. Could a Catholic monk do much worse?

Monday Merton: Beware Propaganda and Emotions

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What influences our moral judgments? What prompts us to take action?

According to Thomas Merton, our society is far more reactionary and emotional, settling for the practical, short term fix rather than the carefully reasoned moral path forward. He also asserted this in the early 1960’s, when most our of current technologies primarily existed in the minds of science fiction writers or imaginative futurists.

The simplicity of reading, reacting, and sharing information on social media encourages reactionary, emotional responses where headlines may or may not convey the heart of the story, let alone offer cogent arguments and action steps.

While I generally prefer to share quotes that are a bit more uplifting and positive, Merton’s critique has helped me step back from the edge in my own consumption of news and social media:

 

“Action is not governed by moral reason but by political expediency and the demands of technology–translated into the simple abstract formulas of propaganda. These formulas have nothing to do with reasoned moral action, even though they may appeal to apparent moral values–they simply condition the mass of men to react in a desired way to certain stimuli.

 

Men do not agree in moral reasoning. They concur in the emotional use of slogans and political formulas. There is no persuasion but that of power, of quantity, of pressure, of fear, of desire. Such is our present condition–and it is critical!”

 

-Thomas Merton, Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander, 59

Monday Merton: The Foundation of Christian Social Action

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I’m continuing my series of reflections on Thomas Merton’s Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander a few days late because of a virus that tore through my kids while my wife was away over the weekend. Now that saltines and Pedialyte have done their work, I’m anxious to share this fantastic quote from Merton, writing most likely sometime between 1962-64, on politics and Christian social engagement.

I am particularly interested in Merton’s holistic approach to social action, beginning with the foundation of men and women being created in God’s image. Our care for others springs from a our common place as beloved creations of God living in a world whose systems and power brokers frequently seek to desecrate others for the sake of profit and control. Merton’s words are particularly challenging and instructive for Christians seeking to engage in American politics.

“We apparently cannot conceive material and worldly things seriously as having any capacity to be ‘spiritual.’ But Christian social action, on the contrary, conceives man’s work itself as a spiritual reality, or rather it envisages those conditions under which man’s work can recover a certain spiritual and holy quality, so that it becomes for man a source of spiritual renewal, as well as of material livelihood.

 

Christian social action is first of all action that discovers religion in politics, religion in work, religion in social programs for better wages, Social Security, etc., not at all to ‘win the worker for the Church,’ but because God became man, because every man is potentially Christ, because Christ is our brother, and because we have no right to let our brother live in want, or in degradation, or in any form of squalor whether physical or spiritual. In a word, if we really understood the meaning of Christianity in social life we would see it as part of the redemptive work of Christ, liberating man from misery, squalor, subhuman living conditions, economic or political slavery, ignorance, alienation.

 

Once this has been said, we understand what it might mean to transform the world by political principles spiritualized by the Gospel. It is an attempt to elevate man, whether professedly Christian or not, to a level consonant with his dignity as a Son of God, redeemed by Christ, liberated from the powers that keep him in subjection, the old dark gods of war, lust, power, and greed. In such a context, political action itself is a kind of spiritual action, an expression of spiritual responsibility, and a witness to Christ. But never merely by the insertion of religious clichés into political programs.”

 

– Thomas Merton, Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander, 76-77

 

The Monday Merton: Relieving Spiritual Baggage

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In a moment of reflection on the joyful eagerness of the novices of his abbey, Thomas Merton made the following observation:

“We get so much in our own way and try to carry so much useless baggage in the spiritual life. And how difficult it is to help them without unconsciously adding much more useless badge to the load they already carry, instead of relieving them of it (which is what I try to do).”
– Thomas Merton, Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander

What if the adding or relieving of spiritual baggage serves as the mark of authentic spiritual wisdom and guidance?

 

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Monday Merton: Love, Love Only

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As I’ve reckoned with the uncertainty and anxiety brought about by the 2016 election here in America, I’ve sought out wisdom and guidance from someone who is both grounded in contemplation and action-oriented critique. It just so happened that I was reading Thomas Merton’s New Seeds of Contemplation and The Echoing Silence during the election.

While The New Seeds of Contemplation offered the insight I craved for contemplation, The Echoing Silence, which offers a collection of Thomas Merton’s writings and letters related to writing, provided unexpected wisdom for today’s partisan politics. As I tracked down some of Merton’s additional writings on current events (he primarily wrote about the 1950’s and 1960’s) in Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander, he provided extremely relevant insight for today’s political climate.

In Merton I found someone who was unapologetically committed to the central orthodoxy of the Christian faith, while deeply suspicious of political events. He did not attack individuals with vindictiveness, but he did critique ideologies and the actions of individuals that were truly harmful.

I have craved Merton’s mix of contemplative spiritual formation and piercing political insight. To that end, I’m collecting quotes from his books to share on Mondays, starting with Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander. While this isn’t the book I’d recommend starting with if you’re interested in Merton (try Thoughts in Solitude or New Seeds),  this is the book that speaks most directly to events in my country and what contemplative action could look like:

 

“So while we are perfectly willing to tell our adversary he is wrong, we will never be able to do so effectively until we can ourselves appreciate where he is right. And we can never accept his judgment on our errors until he gives evidence that he really appreciates our own peculiar truth.*

Love, love only, love of our deluded fellow man as he actually is, in his delusion and in his sin: this alone can open the door to truth. As long as we do not have this love, as long as this love is not active and effective in our lives (for words and good wishes will never suffice) we have no real access to the truth. At least not to moral truth.”

Thomas Merton, Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander (p. 63).

 

*Paragraph break added for online readability.

 

We Will Rebuild with Truth, Equality, Justice, and Love

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As concerned as I am about America’s next president and the many threats he may pose, here’s where I’m at today:

– We have civil rights leaders and activists among us who are experienced and able to help us stand for justice.

– We have journalists and academics who are committed to finding the truth, reporting the truth, and documenting the truth.

– We have civil servants and government workers who will resist the injustices and destructive policies of this man.

– We have a history of Christian writers opposing injustice, such as Dorothy Day (see “The Long Loneliness”) and Thomas Merton (see “Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander”).

– We have a majority in our opposition since the majority of voters did not choose this man.

– I believe that injustice and suffering will follow this man’s inauguration, and things could become far worse than we could imagine in the next four years, but perhaps this disastrous presidency will be the low point that the American people finally need to elect politicians who can enact the reforms we need.

– As the American people discover the depths of injustice that have been unleashed on our land, we must immediately translate our anger into action throughout state elections and Congressional elections, putting politicians (from either party) into office with the moral backbone to stand up to this man.

– This election has exposed the degree to which I have personally depended on elected officials for security in my future. That doesn’t mean I’m not terrified of this man and his hateful associates and policies, but Christians have lived and continue to live in the shadow of oppressive and corrupt regimes.

– I am more committed than ever to my creative work and the creative work of others that pulls back the blinders that political propaganda, pop culture, and entertainment throw on reality.

– I am more committed than ever to the practice of contemplation, seeking quiet moments throughout my day in order to be present for the love of God in order to ground my faith and to cultivate compassion for those deceived by this man.

– I am more committed than ever to love and truth because these are steady and strong, outlasting the temporary gains of bombast, deception, and propaganda.

The American people have resisted injustice and deceit before. With God’s help, we will do it again.

As dark as this hour seems with so much freedom and stability slipping away, let’s resolve to hold onto our family, friends, and neighbors who grasp the gravity of this moment. Let’s hold onto God’s love. Let’s move forward together, committing to pick each other up when we fall into despair. I resolve to hold onto you, to reach out for you, and to depend on you as well when I need support.

After we pass through the fire of this man’s presidency, we will need to rebuild what he has taken away from us. I hope and pray that we will use the sturdy materials of justice, equality, and truth so that no man, woman, or child will ever have to experience the depths of dread and despair that so many of us feel today.

For today, take care of yourself. Practice silence before God. Breathe deeply. Take a walk. Ask for God’s strength to carry us in the days that coming.

In God’s hope,

Ed Cyzewski

We Need Something Better Than “No”

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While looking for a spirituality that is authentic and real, something that is actually a union with God and not just a formal organization around the idea of God, I have realized that far too often I have chosen the easy way out. When my conservative construction of God that rested on propositions, study, and proofs, crumbled under the weight of putting my flimsy beliefs into practice each day, I saw two ways forward.

On the one hand, I could just drop it all. It was all too fragile, controlling, and unknowingly arbitrary. Who could remain healthy within such a system without eventually seeing its fragility, acknowledging it, and then being cast away as a heretic who “lost the faith”?

The other option was a salvage mission. I could cut away the parts that were untenable and arbitrary. I could work toward a kind of center where the essentials could be preserved while letting go of the most contradictory or unlikely elements. At the end of the day, I felt like I was defining myself by what I was not. In addition, when you work at the salvage mission long enough, new groups begin to form with their own boundaries, and over time, you end up within the same kind of fragile structure that you left in the first place.

From another perspective, these were two sides of the same coin. Both the dropping and the salvaging were just ways of stripping away unhealthy elements from the Christian faith in the hope that something worthwhile will remain standing. They thrived on defining “what they are not” with few solid or constructive elements to call people toward.

From the defensive conservative, to the salvaging liberal, to the exasperated atheist/agnostic, the majority of our religious energy can be channeled in a negative direction. So much of our time can invested in defending ourselves from each other. I’ve been blogging since 2005, and for many years these fights were very important to me. Over the past five years, I’ve been asking myself where do we go now?

We don’t need new movements, new logos, new leaders, new events, and new resources. We probably won’t find the way forward from those with the most to lose from the existing order since the existing order often thrives by overlooking our most grievous sins, while turning a critical eye to an extremely limited subset of vices.

My sense for Christians who want to keep the faith today is that we have never needed the mystical tradition of the church more than ever. Only in this tradition can we hold the tensions of Christianity together and somehow arrive at something resembling the kinds of things that could resemble abundant life, renewal, and actually being born again,.

In the mystical tradition we can find a place for the conservative, the atheist, and the liberal. The orthodox essentials of the faith remain in place for mystics because they are the means by which we are united with God, but we prove them by living into their reality rather than devising scientific proofs according to the standards of our culture. We let God determine the validity of faith’s essentials.

The atheists find the emptiness, the void, and silence that they have suspected all along about God. They have their dark nights and their moments of alienation and despair. However, that empty space isn’t the last word by any means. If they hold on to the silence and darkness, waiting for what may come next, there is a deeper encounter with God awaiting them that transcends the frantic worship that often left them feeling dejected and empty.

The liberals can rest from their salvage work. There is nothing to fight against and nothing to strip away. If they can enter into the rest of contemplative prayer and let an encounter with God’s presence to transform them, they may discover renewed energy, mercy, and compassion for the work of justice that beats close to their hearts.

The Christian contemplative tradition is God’s affirming yes of love and mercy. It is union with Christ. It is the Spirit of God no longer hovering over the waters but resting in us. It is the loving voice of the Father no longer calling down from a cloud but whispering from deep in our souls. There is only a divine yes of God being truly with us, transforming our hearts of stone into hearts of flesh.

In the midst of that transformation, I have found freedom to stop fighting because I have been consumed with what I am in the loving presence of God. There is so much to pursue that I have nothing left to consider leaving behind. Everything that isn’t essential melts away in the loving gaze of God.

Those who reject the mystical tradition of the Christian faith, that predates the compilation of the New Testament canon, are often those who have not given it a chance. It’s a leap of faith into the darkness of the cloud of God’s presence. It’s terribly frightening to leave your old religious constructs behind, and this is why so many fight against the mystical tradition. The more you fear you’ll lose, the harder you’ll fight.

In our times that bear the fruit of years of paranoia, racism, xenophobia, deception, and unbridled greed, we need a grounded, time-tested way to move forward into the love and truth of God. I do not see hope in many quarters of the Christian faith, especially in America, but I do see striking clarity, hope, and even unity in the contemplative practices of the Christian mystical tradition.

Contemplation begins with our intention to pray and then proceeds as we surrender ourselves to God. It gives us the space we need to shut down our negative loops of thinking, to hear God speak, and to move forward with greater compassion toward others. It doesn’t need an enemy in order to thrive—unless the enemy is our own unrelenting wills.

I have been looking for sources of hope for this year, and I continue to return to this simple passage about what God requires of us: “Act justly, love mercy, and walk humbly with your God.” I suspect that many of us need God’s loving transformation in order to walk humbly first, and with that transformation in place, we’ll have the capacity to love mercy and to act justly in their turns.

There surely will be a time to shout, but before I open my mouth, I hope to spend time in silence before God. When I speak, my prayer is that I’ll have something better than “No” to share.

I Understand Why Some People Can’t Trust the Church

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When I have to attend a Catholic mass for a family event, such as a funeral or wedding, I can’t rid myself of a deep unease and defensiveness. I have spent years trying to understand this reaction, and the best that I can determine is that the Catholic parish and high school of my youth were very instrumental in dividing my family, and I cannot view the Catholic Church outside the lens of that experience.

Although born and baptized a Catholic to parents who soon divorced, I took an interest in the Baptist church my dad attended at the age of 12. When my mother and her Catholic family caught wind of this, they arranged a meeting with the Catholic priest of their parish who told me to stop reading the Bible and to keep away from this Baptist Church.

However, I’d already started reading the Bible for myself. While I had lacked motivation for a while, this opposition felt like they had something to hide and only emboldened me. The priests routinely pushed for me to stop reading the Bible and to place myself under the interpretive authority of the Catholic Church. This led to years of conflict and division in my family.

When you’ve experienced a particular church or denomination as a closed system that demands control and allegiance, setting itself up as the only correct path, any doubts, questions, or personal investigations are classified as rebellion. I didn’t necessarily set out to leave the Catholic Church. I was certainly drawn to the Bible and a Baptist Church, but I didn’t need the Catholic Church to set down an all or nothing, scorched earth approach.

I recognize that my experience of the Catholic Church is not uniform by any means. Some have had far worse experiences under the authority structures of Catholicism and some have had far more positive experiences. However, the key finding of my experience is that I will never, ever consider placing myself under the power of the Catholic Church ever again. Even entering into a Catholic Mass still feels suffocating.

For years I assumed that my resistance and discomfort were the products of my own flaws or failures to appreciate a different religious group. Today, I can see with a little more clarity that my feelings during the mass after those experiences are a direct result of the way the priests treated my interest in the Bible and sowed deeply painful division in our family.

When a religious system has betrayed you, it’s likely that you’ll never return.

I have watched many friends struggle through abusive church situations on the Protestant end of the faith. They have generally either left the church altogether or found a very different denomination. As they’ve run away from controlling and sometimes abusive power structures, many of them still do so with mixed feelings. They want to affirm Christianity or at least Jesus, but damaging experiences have made it impossible to feel safe in Christian community.

At the very least, I have felt safer in the more decentralized Protestant churches, but we all know Protestants have had their fair share of scandals and failures as well.

Just the other day I happened to overhear a man praying, and he more or less was telling God what’s up. I started to panic before I even realized what was happening. I wanted to run away. I wanted to shout “Get behind me Satan!” I wanted to tell him to stop trying to control God.

I have felt that urge to run away from the control of religion time and time again. I’ve avoided church, I’ve had panic attacks in church, I’ve felt like I simply didn’t have the words to explain to someone why attending church felt so difficult and negative for a season of my life. Many times I was a negative voice of criticism and division because I simply couldn’t see my own wounds.

I’m sure that many have assumed I’m just a sinner. They’ve quoted from Hebrews 10:25 about not forsaking gathering together, boiling down my hesitation if not revulsion at the church down to a black and white matter of obedience. Never mind that it’s likely the author of Hebrews never had something like modern church meetings/power structures in mind when writing this letter, it’s even more likely that the author of Hebrews could never have imagined how horribly church leaders would control, divide, and alienate those in their care.

Until you’ve experienced healthy church leadership that you can trust and that you can believe genuinely cares for you as a person, not as an attendance number, tither, or cog in the ministry machine, you’ll struggle to heal from past church damage. I know people who have grown up in what I would consider unhealthy denominations, but they were cared for by relatively healthy church leaders, and that has made all of the difference for them today.

They weren’t expendable. They weren’t controlled. And perhaps today they struggle to imagine why so many struggle to trust church leaders or to even attend church in the first place.

While I know that many find beauty and holy mystery in the mass, it has only felt oppressive and constricting to this day. Any person in his right mind would run away from that. I have only sympathy and compassion for those who struggle to attend church or have walked away altogether for those same reasons.

I can’t imagine that God would fault anyone for taking the very natural steps of protecting themselves after going through damaging church experiences. Perhaps that is the place where we can find hope—God’s mercy and compassion. This is the God who relinquished control, took the form of a servant, and showed us the way forward through resurrection. We can’t change the judgment and control of the church leaders from our past, but we can see the true mercy and grace of God with a clarity that exposes the frauds and may one day lead us to a place of peace.

 

When Your Parent’s Simple Religious Answers Don’t Work

 

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I have watched time and time again how the older generation of evangelicals interacts with the youth and young adults. I have seen parents supply the answers to their children before they even knew what the children were asking. It’s like the teens and young adults with questions and, gasp, doubts are laden with theological TNT that could demolish the whole enterprise of the Gospel.

I see the appeal of the safety of evangelical Christianity for some, especially the churches and denominations that thrive within largely closed theological systems. Within the system and the community, you have the assurance of answers and practices that all work… as long as you stay within the system. Frankly, it doesn’t even matter if all of the answers are proven true because you’ve learned that they HAVE to be true. If the answers of your group don’t work, you’ve got nothing left—no community, hope for the future, and no way to explain how the world works.

Teens and young adults are often caught in the bind between the simple answers of their communities and their honest questions. And don’t think for a moment that children can’t tell when they’re safe to ask questions and when they’re not.

Having been that young teenager within the closed system of the Catholic Church, I knew exactly what was going on. When a priest met with me to “answer” my questions, I could immediately tell that he was fully confident in his ability to smash my answers into his tidy box of Catholic doctrine.

There was no mystery, no humility, and no mercy for my dissatisfaction. Either I accepted his authority and his theological system, which was all presented as reasonable and fully true, or I was just being rebellious and sinful, rejecting my God-given spiritual leaders and the truth of the Bible.

Is it any wonder that closed religious systems like conservative evangelicalism and Catholicism are both equally capable of creating mini inquisitions of their own? Their adherents learn that truly embracing what is taught and seriously practicing it will require them to at one point or another to stuff their questions and doubts down deep and to ensure that everyone else does the same. If you let someone else doubt or ask the hard questions, what will stop you from facing your own uncertainties and misgivings?

What so many young people suspect and what so many religious leaders fear is this: our beliefs, practices, and institutions are deeply flawed and in error.

Here’s what I suspect: We’re so flawed and in error that we don’t even know which parts are flawed and in error. We could spend the rest of our lives attacking the mistakes and hypocrisies of each other while defending the purities of our own traditions without realizing we’re really all in the same boat.

Yes, if you’ve ever doubted what you’ve been taught in church, you’re not rebellious. You’re just being honest. Most importantly, you could even be on the right path. Not that we want to spend the rest of our lives doubting, asking questions, and deconstructing so that we never find anything. I assure you, Jesus said that those who seek will find, but he doesn’t guarantee what we’ll find.

The problem is that those raised in closed religious systems think that these tiny little havens are the only places to find God. While God is most certainly within these systems in one way or another, there is a larger reality that is often obscured in the midst of the rule following and defenses of doctrinal territory.

There is the bedrock certainty of God’s grace and mercy that roam free regardless of our systems and boundaries, his endless oceans of love for us, and his streams of life that promise us a different kind security. I have found that I don’t need to worry about defending doctrine or truth, I need to live in it. The simple answers and the doctrines we’ve learned had their place, but as many of us suspected, these were just scratching the surface. The difference then is whether you toss all pursuit of God aside or you take the risk of seeking God’s larger reality of presence, mercy, and love—truth isn’t opposed to these, but it can stop you from pursuing them. At one point or another your religious system will fail you, even if you don’t admit that it has failed you.

I’ve been there, clinging to the fragile structure of theology, Bible study, a few seemingly spiritual experiences, and the hollow assurances of others around me. God’s love for me was strictly theoretical and largely wrapped up in the acceptance or rejection of those around me. If they could reject me because of what I said or believed, then God could do the same. If I was expendable to them, then it seemed like I was expendable to God.

I am learning to surrender to the darkness and the silence. I have done so kicking and screaming, wanting to keep shouting praise songs, hoping I could think my way out of this vast unknown land, and trying to spark a light by reciting one scripture verse after another.

Most days I feel like even less than a novice when it comes to the still small voice of God or the presence of God. For as little as I know and have experienced, it has been a true awakening to God’s mercy for me and for the religious leaders and their closed systems.

I see the well-meaning spoon feeding teens and young adults simple answers and doctrines that they can take or leave but must take if they want to be accepted and loved. I see some slump over with indifference because deep down they know that they’re wasting their time. As soon as they can make their own decisions, they’ll most likely drop away from the faith because it never was their own.

They never learned how to receive nourishment from God directly because their parents or church leaders feared that they may leave the faith if they start asking too many questions or let their doubts take root. I have seen the exact opposite among so many of my friends and colleagues. Once we stepped into the darkness and learned to make our faith our own, however imperfect it was, we found a God who is deeper and stronger than the simple answers and systems.

Speaking for myself, I’ve found a presence and love that I can’t explain or quantify, and it can co-exist with my imperfect theology and the theological questions that hang in the wind without resolution.

If I could say one thing to these teens and young adults who slump in the back rows of church today and hope to make their escape in the not too distant future, I would say that my faith never took root until I surrendered everything I thought I knew and learned to receive God’s mercy and love on God’s own terms.

God’s love for you and for me doesn’t change if I rebel against the answers and systems we were told to accept. Jesus has already overcome the world. He alone is worthy to unlock the deepest secrets of eternity past and the mysteries that await us. Are you tired of lugging around these questions? Are you weary of hiding your doubts? Are you thirsting for God’s presence and life instead of demands for spiritual conformity?

Jesus has a single word for you and for me: Come. There are no strings attached or limitations. Come to him with your reservations, disappointments, discouragement, and brokenness. He alone can give us rest and peace.

After spending most of my life fearing that I wasn’t good enough for God or that my doubts were too much, I found that his love for me truly overcomes every barrier I could put in the way.