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.

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.