This is the last in a series of articles that have been written concerning my decision to stay with the life of faith. I titled this series, “Staying with My Religion: The Risk and Rewards of Sticking it Out.” It has been written in response to a book by a former pastor called, “Leaving My Religion: The Risk and Rewards of Becoming Non-Religious.” After twenty-five years, this former pastor left the ministry, the church and his faith. He felt that life “no longer worked for him.” His book has become a workshop and he recently led a sold-out session. I don’t want this series of articles to be seen as a judgment upon this former pastor’s decision. His story is his own. I simply wanted to offer a different perspective.
I have worked in congregations for nearly thirty years, and there have been a few times when I was ready to throw in the towel. I have also had tragic losses in my own life and been present with many people in their own difficult circumstances. Times when the shallowness of the simplistic answers offered by too much of the religious world become so easily apparent. Times in which I have learned that a silent presence with one who is hurting may be the most powerful gift we have to offer. Yet, neither those tragic times nor the difficulties of congregational life have led me to leave my faith behind. They have led to periods of deep questioning in which I thought I might walk away, but I haven’t. My faith is different than it was thirty years ago when I began in ministry, as well it should be. But my belief in the Sacred and Holy continues to be central to who I am. My trust that life has meaning and purpose, that there is a Reason behind it all, has only grown stronger over time and through my experiences. For anyone who was interested, I thought I would share at least some of the reasons why this is so. Not in judgment of the other pastor, but as an alternative.
I have written about what I call the Sacred Realities of love, joy, hope and beauty. Realities that cannot be empirically proven to exist, but are the Realities that give life its deepest sense of meaning. I also wrote about the importance of the community of faith as a place of both comfort and challenge, a place where our relationships help us to understand what it means to be fully human. In ending this series, I want to point to religious faith as being a word of hope for our world.
In her book, “A People’s History of Christianity” Diana Butler Bass quotes Sojourners founder Jim Wallis:
From the perspective of the Bible hope is not simply a feeling or a mood or a rhetorical flourish. Hope is the very dynamic of history. Hope is the engine of change. Hope is the energy of transformation. . . . Between impossibility and possibility, there is a door, the door of hope. And the possibility of history’s transformation lies through that door.
I believe that the message the church is called to share with our world is ultimately one of hope. Hope that the darkness of the ways things so often are, are not the way things have to be. Hope that things can be different. Hope that the people who live as enemies can live in peace. Hope that the blessings of this world, which are abundant, can be shared with all in need. Hope that every human being is treated with dignity and respect, for we recognize that all are created in the Sacred image. Hope that selflessness can overcome selfishness, that love can overcome indifference, that understanding can overcome prejudice. This is the hope-filled message of the church. This is the gospel; that in Christ an alternative way to live has been shown to us, a way that shines light into the darkness.
Suzanne Collins’ trilogy, “The Hunger Games,” has become quite a cultural phenomenon, especially now that the books are being made into movies. “The Hunger Games” are a stinging critique of our society’s fascination with media, celebrity, and violence. The disparity between the “haves and have-nots” and the insidious nature of power also play a central role in the future dystopian society that Collins has created. She holds a haunting mirror up to us so that we might see that our ways are costing us that which is most precious, our children.
In her story about the country of Panem, there is a revolution that is beginning to take place, a dissatisfaction with the way things are is beginning to brew. The leader and symbol of the revolution is a teenage girl named Katniss Everdeen. In the second book, “Catching Fire” it is decided by the President of Panem, who is invested in keeping things just as they are, that Katniss must be eliminated. When he is asked why, the President responds, “Because she gives hope to the revolution. Without her, they have no hope and the revolution is over.” In this series of books, both highly popular and highly critical of our culture, hope is understood to be that power which can change things. Hope can make a difference. Hope can bring down the oppressive structures and create a more just society.
I understand that the church doesn’t always live up to what it should be. I know religious doctrines and dogma can often sound hollow amidst the complexities and tragedies of life. I seek not to judge someone who has experienced the church’s failures and meager attempts to explain the unexplainable and then decided it isn’t for them. I simply wanted to share another perspective. I still find the life of faith, and life lived in the community of faith, to be a life of blessing and worth my commitment. I am deeply grateful to be part of a tradition where we proclaim the hope that the power of love is greater, by far, than the love of power.
I haven’t stayed with this life of faith because “it works for me.” I actually find such a utilitarian approach to life to be very dangerous. I have stayed with the life of faith because I believe in things that can’t be seen, but can experienced – love, joy, hope and beauty. I have stayed with this life of faith because I believe our most important journey in life is toward becoming a more complete human being and this can only happen in the relationships of a community, a community that is about so much more than just “me.” And I have stayed with this life of faith because I believe it is through our faith that we provide the hope of different possibilities to our world.
These are some of reasons that I have stayed at it for the past thirty years. And I plan to keep staying at it. I hope that maybe something I have written over the past month has given you some reason to think about the place of faith in your own life. I encourage you to stay with it. I believe both you and our world will be blessed if you do.