faith

Unlearning

By Rev. Mindi

My twentieth high school reunion is coming up this summer. I’m unable to attend due to cost, distance, and time… but it’s also difficult for me to go because I am in touch with so few of the people I grew up with, and in reality, much more time has passed between then and now than the time I spent with my classmates, even the ones I knew from elementary school. Still, I have fond memories and there are people I will miss being able to see again. As I look up in my office, above the commentaries and Bibles and theology books, I still have a short stack of books from my high school English class: Jane Eyre, Siddhartha, and The Little Prince, among others. I have kept a couple of notebooks of writing. I haven’t looked at it in years (maybe since high school, I can’t remember), but I haven’t thrown it out yet. There are some things I am still holding on to, after all these years.

It’s been thirteen years since I graduated seminary and there are very few books and notes that I look back to from that time. I do still use the Biblical commentaries I had to purchase (at $75 each!) and occasionally I scroll back through the pages of notes for sermons and Bible studies (and notice how much I doodled in the margins), and sometimes I go back to look at books on church history or brush up on some theological concept, but other than that, there’s not much that I look back on. Prior to my last move, I finally recycled most of my school notes, and culled some of my books.

In these thirteen years I’ve had to unlearn some things. I’ve had to unlearn concepts around church structure and organization. I’ve had to unlearn the idea of Sunday School as our society transitions into a new era of education and worship. I’ve had to unlearn ideas of stewardship as we move into an era in which most people my age cannot tithe ten percent and most of us, regardless of profession, have student debt up to our eyeballs. I’ve had to unlearn much of what was taught to me as the norm for many years

When I think of what I have learned in seminary that I wasn’t taught, for me it was the value of friendships in the community of faith. My seminary friends were the ones I could confess my secret doubts with, show off my beginning guitar skills to, and discuss my future with because most of us were heading in a similar direction. Though we’re scattered across the country, our paths cross more often than not in clergy circles, denominational gatherings and conferences—and also, thanks to social media, we have been able to stay connected.  My seminary friends were the ones I could share my fears and hopes and dreams—and also share my questions, my skepticisms, and my struggles. Those were the friends I could truly be myself with.

“The church is where my friends are. The church is where I can be myself. The church is where I belong.” This was not a seminary student who told me this, but a churchgoer who recently decided to be baptized. I know not all churches are like that, but I realized that the congregations I have felt the spirit of God most poignantly are the ones where I could laugh among others, where we could tell jokes and be serious in almost the same moment. Where I could be myself. For this person, this church is where they could be themselves, where they were accepted, where they were loved exactly for who they are.

Maybe it was because I was an awkward teenager, but I never felt like I fit in when I was in high school. I’m sure many other people feel the same. Sometimes, I wonder if church can feel like a high-school reunion: we are going back to something that doesn't really connect with who we are now. When I found the place where I could be myself, I felt that I was at home. I felt that in my home church. I felt it in seminary. I still feel it on retreats with colleagues, and lately, I have begun to feel it within my own church again. I share my still-sharpening guitar skills as I miss chords but try to play anyway. I share stories of my own faith struggles. And what happens is that others begin to share their stories, too, and weren’t afraid of saying or believing the wrong thing.

Diana Butler Bass said in Christianity After Religion that we have to switch from the old pattern of “Behaving, Believing, then Belonging” to “Belonging, Behaving, then Believing.” Again, this is something we have to unlearn from seminary and from church tradition. It’s something you can’t teach, but you know it when you experience it: when you belong somewhere, you can be yourself. By finding a place where I can be myself, I am not only a more authentic minister, but a more authentic child of God and follower of Jesus. And in turn, I have found the church to be a more authentic body of Christ in all its diversity.

“The church is where my friends are. The church is where I can be myself. The church is where I belong,” the churchgoer told me. What are we doing to usher in that sense of belonging? What are we doing to bring about an understanding of authenticity, of a place where we are free to be who we are, with all our questions and doubts and head-scratching? 

Speaking the Language

By Rev. Mindi

“Does she know the Word?” the salesperson asked me. I blinked for a moment again. “Does she read the Bible?”

I understood her the first time, I was just taken back for a moment, remembering another time. Stepping into a commercial Christian bookstore is a timewarp for me, reminders of getting saved at Friday night youth rallies (and more than once), high school Bible study groups and college campus prayer gatherings.  I was also reminded of my brief ministry in the South.

“No,” I replied, “but she wants to start.”  The salesperson put back the awkward bulky study Bible she had pulled down for me when I said I wanted a study Bible, and went instead to a more devotional easy-to-read NIV Bible with softbound cover. Not something I would ever have picked for myself, but this would work for the person I had in mind. “This is perfect. Thank you.”

Sometimes I forget that I ever spoke that language. I grew up in a mainline, progressive church start. In junior high I was already questioning the idea of a male God. I was given a copy of the New Revised Standard Version of the Bible as a baptism present in 1991, with great study notes. I was already pouring over liberal commentaries in my pastor’s office in high school.

But my church was small, and though we had a youth group that met occasionally, I ended up wandering in and out of the youth group gatherings of my friends. These gatherings were high-energy, had great music, fun games, and a lot of bad theology. At one church we were told if we didn’t have a believer’s baptism it didn’t count; at another if we didn’t receive the Holy Spirit we couldn’t go to heaven; at still another, we were once yelled at and lectured for forty-five minutes about the sin of lust.  Still, despite the bad theology and messages that gave me chills, there was a language I learned that I began to use and incorporate into my faith life.  This language included phrases such as “God is opening a door,” or “the Spirit is moving,” “walking with Jesus," and "Getting right with God."

I’ve lost this language over the years. It was language that was familiar to me and what I used in writing my seminary application essays, but after my first year of seminary it dropped away. I suppose I felt silly thinking of God opening doors for me in an academic setting, where I needed to be rational.  My daily devotional reading that I began when I was thirteen fell away along with my evening prayers. I delved into books and became a scholar. Even my ordination paper, in which I described my faith journey, was empty of this language as I focused on the more heavy topics of eschatology and ecclesiology using wordy theological terms to share what I believed.

But language is woven into my spiritual life and is part of who I am. The language that I learned in those evangelical circles became part of my blood and was waiting to come back to the surface again. But it needed to be authentic. Sometimes, when we lived in the South, those phrases came out so I could fit in.  They weren’t heartfelt and they made me feel like a fraud.

Over time, I have met people who grew up in church but haven’t been part of church for a while. Sometimes they describe themselves as having “fallen away.” While I don’t like to use that phrase for its negative implications, I understand where people are coming from and why they may feel that way.  I met someone now who wants to “get back into the Word.” So I went to the commercial Christian bookstore, knowing there I could find people who would speak the same language.

When I first was going to seminary, I used the language of following where God was leading me, and learning that there was more than one right path. Now, no longer believing there is a path set out, a divine plan for everyone, I find myself coming back to that language of following where God leads—but recognizing that God is leading us all, always, in all things.

I remember once in seminary a professor talking about the old hymns that he grew up with, hymns that spoke of being washed in the blood. What a terrible image! But he found he could still sing the songs. And I find myself coming back to the same place. I can still sing the songs (well, most of them), I can still speak the language, it still is within me though I may filter it differently. I still hear Jesus calling me, I still feel God putting words on my heart, and I still know the Spirit is moving me on this journey of faith.

The Move from Believing to Knowing

By Brian Carr

I had a roommate in college who was obsessed with Nutella. For those of you who don’t know, Nutella is essentially chocolate flavored peanut butter. He would put it on almost everything he ate – from toast to pancakes to apples. He always talked about how good it was and kept insisting that I needed to try it.

For a while I just trusted his opinion that it was good and never actually tried it. If people would ask me about Nutella, I would tell them that it was good simply because I had heard that it was good. I had no experience to base that statement on, and so I would never passionately defended Nutella to anyone who disagreed with me. 

I THOUGHT that Nutella was good, but I did not KNOW that Nutella was good. 

When it came to Nutella, I was only living in a world of half-truths. And then I tasted Nutella. And my eyes were opened to a wonderful aspect of this world that I had never truly known. 

Isn’t this true about many things in our lives?

I could talk to you about what it’s like to fall in love – when your heart races, when you feel butterflies in your stomach, when you get nervous and excited all at the same time when you think about that person. But do you know what it’s like to fall in love after hearing me talk about it? Does my defining and describing of love really let you FEEL love? 

Of course not. You need to fall in love for yourself to truly know what it feels like. 

God works the same way. 

Once again I could testify to what it’s like to experience God and to truly feel loved by God, but what good is that if you have never experienced it for yourself? How can you know the freedom that is found in God simply because I told you that I found freedom in God?

There is belief and then there is knowing. 

Belief happens when you listen to the experiences of others. I believed Nutella was good because my friend told me it was and I trusted him. But knowing happens when you’ve experienced something for yourself. Once I tried Nutella, I KNEW it was good.

I moved from believing to knowing. 

One of the more popular stories from the Bible is the story of the woman at the well. After the woman’s encounter with Jesus, she runs to tell all of the Samaritans in her town about him. They believed what the woman had told them about Jesus, but they had yet to find out for themselves. After Jesus visited the town, the Samaritans exclaimed “It is no longer because of what you said that we believe, for we have heard for ourselves, and we know that this is truly the Savior of the world.”

The Samaritans from this story moved from belief to knowing. 

They believed what the woman had told them about Jesus because of her passionate conveying of the story. But they did not know Jesus until he came and lived among them. They finally got to experience Jesus. And this moved them from belief into knowing. 

But how do we go from belief to knowing?

There was a woman who was driving her car on Christmas Eve and the roads were especially slick that night. As she was driving, she drove over a sheet of black ice. Her car swerved out of control and she started to spin. The car barely stopped before crashing into a tree.  She immediately began thanking God for being there with her and protecting her.

So do we need a near death experience?

There was a man who was addicted to heroin. He eventually became broke and homeless trying to feed his addiction. One night he broke down and began cursing at God and wondering why his life turned out this way. As he lay there sobbing, God whispered in the man’s ear, telling him that he was loved. 

Do we need to hit rock bottom to have God talk to us?

In Exodus, Moses was having a conversation with God and asked if he could physically see God. God told Moses to hide his face and after God walked by, Moses would be able to turn around and see the place where God had just been. 

Do we need to catch a glimpse of God?

I was with a friend on the beach and as we lay there in the sand, the sunshine hitting our faces, the waves crashing in front of us, she looked at me and said “This is where I truly feel God.”

Do we need a beach and waves and sunshine?

I was seeing my Christian counselor one day and talking about all the ways in which I felt like a failure. As I sat there on the couch, I began to cry. Immediately the room filled up with a presence I couldn’t explain and it felt like someone gave me a great big hug. 

Do we need failure and a hug?

 A man has a conversation with his friend over a cup of coffee. They discuss their lives and joys and sorrows. The man leaves feeling fulfilled and connected and purposeful.

Do we need coffee and a friend?

The Samaritans were able to live with, eat with and share community with the physical Jesus. That is how they came to know Jesus and to know God.

So do we need to hang out with Jesus once or twice? 

Which of these is the best way to experience God?

The answer, of course, is “yes.”

Or to put it another way, “all of the above.” 

Or to put it another way, “and then some.”

To argue that God can only be experienced in a very narrow and specific way is to argue that Nutella can only be enjoyed on toast. It cheapens the experience and takes away all of the glory and wonder. God cannot be squished into a box with nice, neat boundaries, and neither can the experiences you have with God. The number of ways in which you can experience God are as limitless as the stars in the universe. 

The problem is that sometimes we miss the fact that we are experiencing God. How easy it could have been for my friend to not recognize God’s presence on the beach that day. How easily I could have brushed off my hug as just a psychological part of my breakdown. How easy it could have been for the Samaritans to have missed the powerful presence of Jesus. 

Many experienced the presence of Jesus and did not recognize who Jesus was or how Jesus could open their eyes to love of God. The Samaritans could have spent time with Jesus and STILL missed the presence of God that surrounded them. 

But they chose to be aware and ready and willing. And it helped them move from belief to knowing. 

The profound is not the only way to experience God. Sometimes it’s the small, everyday things and interactions that can open us up to the presence of God. 

A smile, a conversation, a sunset, a prayer, a song, a rainbow, or a hug.

God can be experienced in all of those things.

And those can move US from belief to knowing. 

Staying With my Religion: Sacred Realities

By Rev. Mark Poindexter

Last week, I wrote that I would be sharing a series of three articles titled “Staying with Faith: the Risks and Rewards of Sticking it Out.”  This was in response to an event at the Spirit and Place Festival in Indianapolis, led by a former pastor, titled “Leaving My Religion: The Risks and Rewards of Becoming Non-Religious.”    After twenty-five years in ministry, this former pastor, who is also the author of some best-selling books on religious themes – books which happen to sit on my shelves – resigned from his position and left the church.  He didn’t leave just the ministry, he left the church as well.  He apparently felt the religious life “no longer worked for him.”  Since, I have been in pastoral ministry for about that same amount of time, and since I have decided to stick it out, I thought I’d share why.  The “why” I’ll be seeking to answer isn’t about why I have decided to stay in ministry as a career, but why my religious faith is something that remains a central part of who I am, independent of my life as a pastor. 

This week I am going to write about what I call, the reality of the Sacred.  Next week, I’ll share about the vital role a community of comfort and challenge plays in the religious life.  The final article will deal with the power of religious faith in helping to create a more just and compassionate world. 

In his first letter to the church at Corinth, the Apostle Paul writes that once everything else has passed away, some things will remain, “faith, hope and love, these three; and the greatest of these is love.”  In this passage, Paul speaks of there being some realities that are eternal in nature.  The way I often speak of such realities is that they are “woven into the very fabric of the universe.”  These realities are found across space and time and they are the very things that make human life worth living.  They are not things that can be measured or weighed.  There is no empirical test that can verify their validity.  Yet they are the very realities that give life its fullest sense of meaning.

Viktor Frankl was a Jewish psychiatrist who endured the horrors of life in the Nazi death camps from 1942-45, including time in Auschwitz.  In those camps, Frankl’s parents, brother and pregnant wife all perished.  It was out of that experience of intense suffering and loss that Frankl wrote “Man’s Search for Meaning.”   His foundational idea is that the primary motivational force of an individual is to find meaning in life. Much can be endured in life, even much suffering, if somehow we can find meaning in the midst of it.  And for Frankl the highest sense of meaning is found in love.

A thought transfixed me: for the first time in my life I saw the truth as it is set into song by so many poets, proclaimed as the final wisdom by so many thinkers.  The truth – that love is the ultimate and highest goal to which man can aspire.  Then I grasped the meaning of the greatest secret that human poetry and human thought and belief have to impart: The salvation of man is through love and in love. . . . For the first time in my life I was able to understand the meaning of the words, “The angels are lost in perpetual contemplation of an infinite glory.”

Frankl learned that the reality that could help him survive the brutality and cruelty he faced, the reality that could help him have a sense of meaning in an environment where meaninglessness abounded was love.  The love that he shared with his family, even though they had perished, continued to be a real part of who he was. In the reality of that love he was able to maintain his humanity in the most inhumane of places.

When I speak of the reality of the Sacred, it is to such things as love, hope, grace, joy, beauty, promise, and potential that I am referring.  These are realities that drive the human heart to profound acts of compassion and propel the human spirit to heroic acts of character.  These are not things that belong to the realm of science, they exist outside the realm of empirical verification.  But that they exist, that they are undeniable realities in our world, seems self-evident.  And for me, these Sacred realities point toward the deepest reality of all, the reality of God. 

I know some folks look at the suffering and sorrow in the world and conclude that there can be no God.  I am understanding of their conclusion, but I do not share it.  I see the reality of love and hope, even in the midst of suffering and sorrow, as a reason that I believe in God and even more a God, who as the scriptures say, is love.        

My favorite quote is from Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, a French philosopher and Jesuit Priest, who was also trained in geology and paleontology.  His two worlds of science and faith come together in this quote:

The day will come when, after harnessing space, the winds, the tides and gravitation, we shall harness for God the energies of love.  And on that day, for the second time in the history of the world, we shall have discovered fire.

I believe in realities beyond those of the material world.  I believe such realities have great power.  I believe that behind these realities is the deepest reality of all – God.  This belief gives a great sense of meaning and purpose and direction to my life.  This is one reason, I have stayed with my faith . . . and it has been deeply rewarding.     

Love Rescue Me

By Rev. Mindi

We were crammed in to a four-passenger Cessna, with our baggage in the tail. Four teenagers on their way to Church Camp, two of whom were actually Baptist, one who was Catholic and one who was not raised in church, as far as I knew. Lightest kid sat in the back. I sat next to my fellow churchgoer, and my good friend from high school, my Catholic friend, sat up with the pilot.

The airport in Kodiak, Alaska was built during World War II, and was built precisely because of the amount of fog. The Japanese had invaded the Aleutian Islands and the fear was that they were building up to an invasion of North America through Alaska.  Nonetheless, fifty-plus years after the war, the fog was no longer convenient but a definite problem. The year after this, my brother and friend would try to fly down to Church Camp and be stuck at the Anchorage International Airport for over twenty-four hours due to the fog (it was only the two of them that year, so they got to travel on a real airline).

We had thirteen kids going that summer, and so the seven-passenger Cessna, which had better equipment and was a faster aircraft, had gone ahead of us. Missionary Air was a service in Alaska to help pastors get out to the bush communities, but they also would fly us to church camp for free when we had enough kids that needed to go.  They were able to land.  However, the radar was not working that day at the Kodiak Airport, and the pilot didn’t have the better instruments on this plane.  So we dipped out of the foggy cloud-clover over some rocky island (there are many islands in the Kodiak archipelago), but the pilot made the decision to turn and fly back to the Kenai Peninsula. And as we flew back, about forty-five minutes into the flight, I noticed the pilot kept leaning over and looking down.  “What are you looking at?” I shouted up at him over the roar of the twin-engine Cessna.  “Looking for land,” he shouted back.  At that point, my friend in the front seat began to pray.

It was the first time in my life I thought I might die. Seventeen years old, and even though I had experienced the death of loved ones and had gone to my grandfather’s funeral that spring, it was in that moment, above the white lofty clouds, blue sky and blazing sun, somewhere above the Gulf of Alaska that I thought this might be it.  And it turns out I wasn’t too far off—we started to run out of fuel while landing in Kenai. One engine sputtered out on descent and we had a bit of a bumpy landing. But we landed. We were safe. We were ok.  Later that afternoon we took off for a second attempt after refueling and hearing that the weather had cleared, and had a beautiful trip down to Kodiak, and were later reunited with our other campers that had flown out that morning and those that came from Kodiak on the beautiful, temperate rain-forested Woody Island, where the mist rose out of the trees every morning and you couldn’t see across the two-mile channel to Kodiak Island because of the thick choking fog, but where it burned off every afternoon for a brilliant sunset turning into a gorgeous starscape every night.

Church Camp was the place where my faith sprouted, where I was challenged in my faith and in my very being. I remember every year facing the challenge of, having already been saved, trying to come up with some reason I needed redemption and saving again, because the joyful catharsis of being saved on the last night of Church Camp was something I wanted to experience every single year. Because I was so emotionally vulnerable as a teenager, it was easy to start believing I was a horrible sinner who needed saving, was un-loveable and needed to be loved by God in order for everything to be right. This coming from the one-in-a-million youth for whom D.A.R.E. actually worked for. I never smoked, drank, did drugs or slept around. I was a “good kid.” So therefore, there a) must be something wrong with me that I hadn’t realized and needed to find out so I could be saved, or b) was not interesting to anyone else because I was too good and didn’t need to be saved.  Tough times for this Christian teen.

But it was that last year at camp, just after high school graduation, that changed things for me. Besides my near-death experience (well, it probably wasn’t really, and maybe I just imagined the engine going out as the pilot never admitted that to us though we were all convinced it was) that same week I was at camp a family friend—my age—committed suicide.  After my mom called me and told me, I told my camp counselors, whom I’m pretty sure just thought I was another needy teenager when I became a bit emotional about it (I don’t mean to be flip, but I remember that no one—not the camp counselors or the camp pastor—thought this was a huge thing, that a family friend had taken his own life)—I felt empty. Death was such a final reality and our friend was gone. And there was nothing I or anyone could do to bring him back.


What I really wanted was someone to comfort me, to tell me everything was ok—that I was ok. And as I look back now (“that summer seemed to last forever…” sorry, sidetracked) I realize that I WAS OK. All OF US WERE OK. There was nothing that was so bad that any of us had done. A few there had smoked pot and drank. Some had probably had sex by then. What would have been helpful were some trained counselors to deal with some of the real issues of drug addiction, or at least referrals that way.  But I think what we needed to know the most was that we were not broken people. We were still kids! What had we done that was so awful and horrible? But we were made to think that in order to be whole, to be loved by God, to be accepted, we had to be broken first, and that we had to somehow feel bad about who we were and had been.

I still believe in a God of redemption. I still believe in Jesus as my Savior, Redeemer and Friend. But I no longer believe that Jesus wants me to be emotionally abused and shamed before being able to accept love. There is nothing in the Gospels that says “First, be ashamed of who you are. Second, tell everyone how bad you have been. Third, accept Jesus before you leave camp because you don’t know when else you’ll have the chance to be saved.”  No. What I read of Jesus is him saying immediately, “Your sins are forgiven.”  What I see Jesus doing is accepting people as human beings first and foremost.

I thought about this today because now I live in Seattle and the fog creeps in on my hillside church and parsonage every morning these days, and I’m reminded of Woody Island and how the fog seemed to choke out hope of seeing beyond what was in front of us, but then it would burn off and we’d see the beauty of creation beyond anything we could imagine. Orcas jumping fifty yards off the dock. Sea lions butting up against the pilings. Bald eagles nesting in the trees above Canoe Lake. And the lone red bull (seriously, not making this up) wandering the island, leftover from the days when cattle were ranched there, when the last homesteader left.

I don’t write this to shame my camp counselors, many of whom were just a few years older than me and had the heavy, heavy burden of trying to get kids saved before they went back home. And some of us came from some pretty rotten families. Some came from foster care. Some had been abused by elders. It’s not to say we didn’t need saving—we did.  But that week at camp was what saved us, again and again. A week among the trees, on an island away from everyone else, away from teen pressures, away from the family members who didn’t love us or couldn’t care for us. But I don’t think we were broken.  Perhaps what we needed so desperately to hear was the message of God’s love for us in Jesus Christ, simply because we were children, human beings. Not because of our own brokenness, but because of the brokenness of the world. The brokenness of a world in which a teenager took his own life.  The brokenness of a community in which parents abandoned their children. The brokenness of a place in which youth escape these pressures and pain through drug abuse and alcohol.

Maybe we did need saving, but we needed to know that God loved us, and that we weren’t broken, we weren’t damaged goods, we weren’t horrible, sinful people. We were simply children of God.  And I’d like to let my camp counselors off the hook for the job of saving us. I think many of them were trying to figure this all out for themselves as well.

The last day of camp I got up early before breakfast and morning devotions. I snuck my Discman out of my sleeping bag and crept out the door, walking down the path to Lower Inspiration Point, where the sign carved into the tree read, “Be still and know that I am God.”  There was a little peninsula with rotted-out beams in rows for a little outdoor chapel, jutting out into a point in Canoe Lake, and an old driftwood cross erected in front. A tree grew out near the tip of the peninsula, and just beyond the tree was where many kids were baptized over the years, baptized into a temporary community of faith that would be scattered by Saturday.  I sat down on the beam pews and listened to Rattle and Hum by U2, and the song “Love Rescue Me” with Bob Dylan singing came over the headphones:

                Love rescue me

                Come forth and speak to me

                Raise me up and don’t let me fall

                No man is my enemy

                My own hands imprison me

                Love rescue me

                …

                Yea, though I walk

                through the valley of the shadow

                Yea, I will fear no evil

                I have cursed Thy rod and staff

                They no longer comfort me

                Love rescue me

And in that moment as I listened to that song and that album, I kid you not, a bald eagle flew overhead, swooped down and marred the surface of the still lake waters. And I knew that I was being raised up.

The God of Church Camp that said “You must be ashamed. You must regret. You are sinful and unworthy, and you are only worthy if You accept me” was gone. That kind of thinking no longer comforted me.  Instead, this idea of God’s love—God’s love for me because I was me—saved me.

And that love by Jesus is still saving me. I have failed many times as a pastor and a mom and a wife. I have failed as a community leader. I have failed in many ways. But I’m not broken.  I’m not terrible. I’m not damaged goods. I am loved.