Unorganized religion

My friend Renee said in a comment on a previous reflection that she’d give me extra credit if I could help her respond to her 10-year-old god-daughter about how she (Renee) can believe in god if she doesn’t go to church every Sunday.  Perhaps Renee doesn’t remember this from our school days, but I’ve always been a bit of a glutton when it comes to extra credit.  I started to write a brief (honest!) response to her comment this morning, but it became a much longer (surprise!) thing and so I decided to give it its own space.

First, there is no sin like church sin to turn you off of the entire enterprise that is known, somewhat laughably to me, as “organized religion.”  Church sin can be as big and broad as being told of God’s love while being condemned for who you are.  Church sin can be as small as visiting a church and having no one, not a single person, acknowledge you or talk with you.  Then there’s the whole struggle of “what do I have to believe to belong to a church?”  That one, plus general hypocrisy that is all too common among so-called Christian churches, probably drive people away by the thousands.

Just the other day I was chuckling to myself, wondering why people so often use the adjective “organized” to describe religion.  As opposed to what?  Disorganized?  I’ve been in churches that would best be described as practicing “disorganized religion.”  Reorganized?  That was the first word in the crazy-long name of the denomination of my youth.

In thinking about Renee’s god-daughter’s question, it seems to me that believing in god without going to church is a way of practicing unorganized religion.  I’ve done that, too, and the advantages are too numerous to count, including getting to sleep in on Sunday, poring over the Sunday New York Times while the news is still relatively newish, avoiding the toxicity of god always being a man, etc.  The thing is, I never stopped believing in god – I can’t ever remember I time where I didn’t believe in a limitless assortment of divineness and holiness in the universe that threads through me but does not have me (thank god!) as its center.  Old bearded white man godMy concept of god is best described in one word as pantheistic, in the sense that I don’t believe there’s one container, or three containers if you’re more trinitarian in your orientation, that contain that which is divine.  And my concept of god is surely nothing like the old bearded white guy god that so many people still carry around, to my continued astonishment.  [Note: The photo at the right is the actual freakish cover of an actual freakish book I found on the shelf in my local library while I was writing this very reflection.  The subtitle in red, to the left of so-called GOD’s freakish face is “How to Live the Full Adventure of Knowing and Doing the Will of God.”  Hold up.  Is the GOD in question THAT GUY???  No thanks.  Turns out I’m REALLY busy for the foreseeable future.  And by future, I mean this lifetime and whatever comes next.]

So, while I never stopped believing in god, it took me a long time to believe in the church, and I’m still a work in progress.  The church [and by “the church” I mean “organized religion”] has been in so many ways, for me, more an agent of condemnation than compassion, more interested in self-preservation than inquiry, more encouraging of doctrine than discussion.  In short, church was the last place I ever found god.  So Renee, a possible short answer to your niece is that previous sentence right there.  However, if you’re looking for a cure for insomnia, read on.

Somewhere along the way, I started flipping the issue upside down, or inside out.  I started thinking about the whole god and church issue as being one where maybe, just maybe, church needed ME so that more people could find god in church.  I tend to think that PW’s fingerprints are all over this particular twist in my road, since she has always been very open to my skeptical/heretical leanings, and because it sounds like the kind of thing she would say.  But lest I be committed to the nearest psychiatric ward for delusions of grandeur, what I mean is that as I started knitting together the still-unfinished afghan that is my theological orientation to the cosmos, it occurred to me that if I could find a church that had a decent number (say, more than 3) of curious skeptics in it (people with questions like mine, or people who would be willing to entertain questions like mine), then that could be a fun place to do my spiritual and theological workouts.  Bonus points for a church that was really living out what are, for me, the central tenets of Christianity – namely to help and advocate for the least, the last, and the lost.

I didn’t suddenly or randomly start flipping the issue upside down or inside out.  I had a lot of help and encouragement from some key people. In addition to PW, there was the husband and wife pastoral team at the first church I attended after abandoning church at age 18 when I left home for college.  I could, and did, ask John Mack and Barbara Gerlach anything and everything about theology and doctrine.  I once asked Barbara, “So what’s the big deal about Jesus?  Why don’t we also give air time to some of our modern-day prophets, like Gandhi, King, and Romero?” while we were organizing the closet where all the altar cloths were stored.  Another time I sent John an email rant with the subject: “I hate Palm Sunday and maybe Easter, too.”  Not only did they encourage my questions, they responded pastorally, sometimes playfully, often with more questions for me to wrestle with.  They also encouraged me to keep asking questions even as they invited me to become a more visible and active member of the First Church community.  So there I was, openly queer and openly skeptical of the whole church enterprise, and the pastors wanted me to bring my whole self to the table.  Call me a weirdo, because that offer was impossible to refuse.

The other weirdo thing that happened was that I started hearing love songs not just as interpersonal, but also as songs from a compassionate creator to me personally and to us humans generally, and vice versa.  As someone who is always looking for, and usually finding, the next great love song, I don’t remember exactly when this started happening, but once it did, it was like the floodgates opened, and now it happens all the time.  So rather than prattle on any longer, let’s just listen to a great love song sung by two of the best, Patty Griffin and Emmylou Harris.  This is “Little Fire” from Griffin’s latest album “Downtown Church.”

10 responses to “Unorganized religion

  1. Heather Kohout

    You are mighty fine. Thinking about writing a book, I hope? I got to ask lots of my irritable questions at seminary, including grumpy wonderings about God’s only son; was there a fertility problem? My theology professor–orthodox, bespectacled, perfectly straight part in the middle of his thin white hair–half-smiled at my hissy fit and agreed that there were countless sons and daughters. That’s when I knew I could stay.

    • Just so you know, Heather, I would have gone to seminary in a heartbeat if you had been one of my classmates. And yes, I’m not only thinking about writing a book, I am in the process of doing it, some of which is leaking out into this website.

  2. Mary Ann McEvoy

    You have and still do enrich my spirituality.

    • Aww, thanks Mary Ann. I miss our old FCC days. I hope you’re still holding the fort there, or somewhere else. The world needs your voice in it. I know I need your voice, and I am projecting my need on to the entire rest of the world.

  3. Years and years ago I joined a local Presbyterian Church because the minister gave a sermon on faith and doubt, and professed his own belief that there is no such thing as great faith without doubt. My kind of guy. Lovely column, Joy.

    • Kathy, it’s amazing how something as seemingly simple as acknowledging that you can’t have faith without an element of doubt can be such a powerful force for breaking down barriers, whether they are barriers we have created or ones that others are trying to use to keep us out. Yikes, that was a long sentence!

  4. Where to start . . . first of all, I’m honored to be called a friend.

    Second, great inspiring thoughts. I church-shopped off and on for years but have never quite landed anywhere. Being raised Missouri Synod Lutheran and going to parochial school for most of one’s formative years leaves quite an impression on a more-impressionable-than-most soul. All that to say, you’ve inspired me to revisit the search.

    Finally, isn’t it nice to hear so many people want you to write a book? That’s got to feel good!

    • Renee, my only regret about our friendship is that there was ever a gap in it. All those years you worked with my brother and I didn’t even know it!

      As for church-shopping, I honestly think it’s harder to find a church that fits than it is to find a life companion. I don’t say that to dissuade you, but to sympathize with being in that place. Part of the problem is that I think you have to be in a place where you are willing and able to live with an imperfect fit for awhile, and that’s so tricky, I find. It helps to know what you need, or to know that you really needed something when you start getting it.

      When I started at Emmanuel, I didn’t know how badly I needed to hear the particular music that’s offered there, mostly because I was so griefstruck about not being able to sing in the choir every Sunday. The value of being an active listener, as opposed to an active singer, was something that came to me gradually. I could get that choral singing fix on a more regular basis if I wanted, but I really need it in the context of worship, so I guess I’m not ready to pursue it yet.

      Good luck on your search. And yes, it IS nice to hear that people want me to write a book, though I’ve been hearing it for 20 years and until recently I’ve always responded with a sense of, “Yes, that’s nice, but I just can’t picture it.” It’s nicer to feel now like I actually have a sense of what a book that I would write would look like and sound like.

  5. Richard Howard

    Lovely, eloquent daughter Joy,
    Today’s post puts me in a reflective and thankful mood, which I hope will last a good while. Please excuse me if this response stretches out too long.

    I spent most of my youth belonging, but not belonging, to a funny little church that insisted that it was the only true church on earth. I belonged because I joined it at age eleven, and sang soprano in the boys’ choir every other Sunday for nearly four years. I did not belong because I never for a moment bought the “one true church” theory. Why? because I saw so much good in my classmates and teachers at school, and most of them belonged to quite a variety of churches, some of which made the same claim about being the “one true church.” And I saw so much that was not so good in my own church and in others on the landscape, that any claim to singular virtue by anyone or any one church seemed to me to be ridiculous. In those early years I never dreamed that one day I would become an international officer of my funny little church, but it happened to me at age thirty-three, three years after you were born. And you know much of the rest of this story.

    Along with many others, I’ve observed that “organized religion” has done more throughout human history to divide and alienate and oppress persons than almost any other institution invented by human striving and cleverness. So I have no illusions about the relative efficacy of any religious organization to resolve all the difficulties visited by religions upon the earth, creation, and humanity.

    Brother David Steindl-Rast noted more than twenty years ago that all religions begin in some aha! moment of mystical clarity, spawning a glimpse of sheer truth, goodness, and beauty. This is followed by the inevitable processes of cooling and hardening of these three life forces into dogma, moral judgments, and ritualism. The original mystical impulse fractures into “organized religion,” awaiting revival that comes only through spiritual impulses and practices of later generations.

    Approaching eighty-one years of age leads me to celebrate that you have done so much in recent years to deliver me from the hint of attachment to the claims of any expression of institutional religion. The more I read what you write, and the more I hear what you say, the freer I am to be and to rest in the assurance that somewhere in this multiverse of universes in which we live, are to be found the dance of honest inquiry, the mutuality of live and let live, and the spirit of life energized by the joy of abiding by a single golden rule: be responsible for my own life, and refuse to injure another living being.

    Some years ago you introduced me to Patti Griffin, and I thank you. Today your words have lit a little fire in me that I hope flickers just enough for me to notice that I’m alive and fully engaged moment by moment in a creative flow, merging with countless streams of living water immersing me in the promise of every new moment to come.

    Blessings be yours, dear Joy, as you continue to breathe truth and goodness and beauty into this aching world. I hope to be among the first to read the book that surely must be forming with each stroke of your pen!

    • Wow, Dad. I am the luckiest daughter on earth, I think. No, I know it. Whether my skepticism is, in part at least, a genetic or environmental inheritance from you, I thank you more than there are words to express it. And also thank you for being one of the people who breathed my own little fire into being, and who has sat with me by it from the very beginning. I love you.

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