Waste Not? Want Not?

Waste not, want not. So says the eighteenth-century aphorism.

Implied is a warning against the desperation of neediness. Presupposed is a sense of scarcity and a fear that there won’t be enough. Many of our families and our church institutions have lived by this adage for multiple generations.

What does Jesus have to say about wasting or wanting?

On Palm Sunday, we listen to the story of his Passion (Mark 14:1-72), beginning at Bethany in the house of Simon the leper. A woman enters with an alabaster jar full of costly nard, breaks the jar, and pours the contents over his head.

Her extravagance elicits outrage from several of the guests “Why this waste of perfumed oil? It could have been sold for more than 300 denarii! The money could have been given to the poor!”

They make a fair point. One denarius was the daily wage for a laborer. Multiplied by 300, we’re talking about somewhere between $15,000 and $20,000 by today’s standards.

Yet Jesus praises the woman for lavishing this gift upon him. The poor will always be with us. Jesus will not. She has anointed him for his burial, and her good deed is to be remembered throughout the generations.

In Jesus’ view, there is a time and a place to be “wasteful” – especially when it comes to showing honor and delight to those we love. If we are dominated by a fear-based frugality, then our message to others easily becomes, “Let me calculate how much you are worth,” or “I don’t think you matter that much.”

What about “wanting”? What does Jesus have to say?  Actually, quite a lot!

When the crowds gather to hear his preaching, he begins with the Beatitudes. He invites us to experience true and unshakable blessedness by embracing poverty of spirit, mourning, and meekness. He invites us to feel the ache of hungering and thirsting for righteousness. It is in the depths of our needing that we are most capable of receiving.

Jesus did not merely teach us to need and depend and receive. He modeled receptivity, as did Mary and Joseph. They went in want. They lacked basic shelter as Mary’s pregnancy came to term. They fled into Egypt as immigrants, without knowing how their necessities would be met. Jesus spent thirty of his thirty-three years in relative obscurity, engaging (it seems) in far more receptivity than sacrificial giving. Nor did he stop allowing himself to need and to receive during his brief public ministry. He willingly received kindness and care from others. Even when his “hour” came and he said a free and wholehearted “yes” to sacrificing everything, he lodged in Bethany with his good friends.

“Waste not, want not” contains a small amount of wisdom, but ultimately dehumanizes. It teaches us to be terrified of going in want, of needing, of depending, of receiving – in stark contrast to the teaching and example of Jesus.

Can we be curious about where this attitude comes from?

I see it as a survivor mentality, including an inner vow (“I will never go in want again!”). Doing what it takes to survive is great in a desperate situation. If you’re stranded on a ship for months, “waste not, want not” is an outstanding motto. But when that survivor mentality becomes enfleshed in everyday life, it becomes a burden.

I think of my childhood, and pleasant-enough visits to my great grandmother on my stepdad’s side. The house was, shall we say, “cozy.” Stuff piled everywhere. Like so many, she was a survivor of the Great Depression, determined never to go in need again. When she passed, my stepdad and his sisters spent many hours cleaning out the clutter. He joked about the piles of used paper cups from McDonald’s. You just don’t know when you might need them again. Waste not, want not.

He joked, but he lived by the same mentality. Shortly after her death, he needed to move his tools out of her garage. So, we tore down our one-stall garage and built a five-stall. He cleverly salvaged the old door, turning it into a back entrance.

The new garage was huge, but we never parked cars in it.

It was way too full of stuff. Some of the things (his tools) were quite valuable.  Much of it was, well, less valuable. When my stepdad passed in 2010, my sister and I spent a few days toiling to clear out the garage. We didn’t find any paper cups, but we sure got rid of stuff. It was a great moment of triumph when we announced to our mom that she could start parking her car there.

As we cleared out the junk, I made trip after trip to the curb. I discovered the power of another proverb, “One man’s trash is another man’s treasure.” Between trips to the curb, all had magically disappeared – into someone else’s five-stall garage, apparently?

Cluttered garages and homes can be joked about – and we’ve all seen them. They range from mildly annoying to utterly disgusting and dangerous. The deeper question here is around the survivor vow that gets taken amidst heartache: Never again!

Never what, exactly? That’s the problem with vows made out of fear. Over time, they cut us off from really great things: in this case, from the capacity to receive and give love in healthy community, to flourish, and to experience abundance together.

Survivor vows are not merely individual – they entrench themselves in the collective: families, churches, schools, entire dioceses. Many of our institutions are darkened by a cloud of fearful protectiveness – and then lament that membership is so low. In one of my previous parishes, I repeatedly turned on lights that others had shut off. I was expecting first-time guests, and (with sensitivity) expecting them to be nervous. I felt like it would be kind to have them enter a warm and inviting space, rather than snake their way around dark corners. There were some in the parish who couldn’t handle such extravagance, whispered about my wastefulness, and shut the lights back off the moment I wasn’t looking.

More recently, I heard about “Plategate.” A priest friend was hosting with pizza after Masses in his church. He had the gall to use the paper plates stored by some of the church ladies. They made a point of hiding those before the next Mass. So he purchased his own plates. They proceeded to hide those. I imagine there are hundreds of priests nationwide who have their own versions of “Plategate” as they try to invite renewal in their churches.

Fear is a normal human emotion. But when fear of that happening again takes over and hops into the driver’s seat, we stifle the capacity to receive, to grow, and to bear fruit. We wind up embodying the parable of the talents, living like the fearful servant who buries his gift in the ground (Matthew 25:14-30). We cut off all vulnerability and risk, and in the process stifle any real growth or fruitfulness for the sake of the Kingdom. That choking off affects not just us, but all of our relationships.

Our God is not a God of scarcity but of abundance. When we allow ourselves to be secure in his love, we can feel confident and creative. We can collaborate and innovate. We can go beyond the math of adding or subtracting, and discover the power of multiplication – something Jesus often talked about and did.

Our God is first and foremost a God of relationship. God is an eternal communion of persons. Jesus is eternally “from the Father.” Who he is and what he has are the fruit of receiving. He desires to share the same abundance with us. He invites us to become truly blessed precisely by learning how to desire, to want, and to need.

During Holy Week, we will ponder just how much Jesus embraced our human condition of wanting and needing. I invite each of us to be curious about the ways we resist that level of vulnerability, and how he might be inviting us to conversion.

Driven vs. Desiring

For many years, others described me as “driven.” They typically intended it as high praise, and at the time I took it as such.

After all, isn’t it wonderful to strive for excellence, to persevere through repeated obstacles, and to find a way to keep coming out on top? Not necessarily – especially if it’s at the expense of the people I care about, not to mention my own dignity as a beloved child of God.

Desire and “drivenness” seem so similar, but they are radically different. Desire attracts us, allures us, draws us. It doesn’t drive us. Ultimately, all of our desires (even our disordered ones) are beautiful gifts from God. He never coerces. He always honors our dignity and freedom.

If we are “driven,” the real question becomes, by whom or by what? Where is that feeling of pressure or high expectation or coercion coming from?

In my case, there can be a felt sense of urgency: I have to, or else…

Or else what?

For years, I don’t think I slowed down enough to ponder what the “or else” even was. I was too driven, and sometimes still am. I can easily shift into a dogged determination, in which failure is not an option. When I do, if a person or situation suddenly stands in my way, my normally “calm” outward demeanor flashes with irritation, peevishness, or frustration – often surprising myself and others. Where did that burst of anger come from, that overreaction?

Now I understand a bit better. In mere milliseconds, my body mobilizes: first feeling shame; then feeling fear of exposure or abandonment; then feeling contempt toward the person perceived as a threat; then weaponizing that contempt; and finally, an eruption of anger, manipulation, or shaming behavior. All this happens in an instant – before my thinking brain has even realized that a reaction is happening.

I can’t stop such reactions from happening altogether, but I can notice and be curious and reflect. Kindness and childlike curiosity go so much further than self-contempt and a push into even more drivenness. My curiosity might go something like this: Huh – that’s interesting. I really reacted just now. What’s my body feeling at the moment? What is the intense warning trying to tell me? How old do I feel right now? When was the last time I felt like this?

I can listen to my anger, my fear, and my shame. Then I can start to notice what the “or else” is saying – even if it is irrational in the current situation. I’ve noticed in myself a fear of failing or of being exposed as not good enough. I notice a fear that others will leave me unprotected or all alone to navigate the hardest moments of life. As long as I somehow keep performing at an impossibly high level, maybe they’ll stick with me. Over time, this drivenness gets exhausting. It is not sustainable, and it definitely does not yield joy!

Hear me correctly – I’m not condemning being “driven.” It is one of the ways we human beings survive awful situations. Shame and fear are powerful motivators. They may even help us begin a journey of repentance. But only desire can abide, grow, and bear fruit. Fear and shame will never help us to have healthy, happy, and holy relationships. Fear of the Lord may be the beginning of wisdom (Proverbs 9:10), but “perfect love drives out all fear” (1 John 4:18).

I’ve written before about Augustine of Hippo and his distinction between ducere and trahere. Appealing to John 6, he describes the way in which God the Father allures and attracts us (trahere) by means of our desires. He doesn’t demand or coerce like an earthly authority tends to do (ducere – from which words like “duke” derive). We are created for communion and love, and God desires us to desire him. He allures us without coercing, without “driving.”

This is a tricky matter, because outwardly, two different human beings can be doing exactly the same thing for quite different reasons. One is driven by fear and shame, while the other is motivated from within by desire and love. One is avoiding the pain of unhealed wounds and running away from the Cross; the other has experienced dying and rising with Jesus and is bringing an unshakable confidence into a broken world. For example, two different Christians passionately evangelize. One is terrified of hell and is driven to keep all others out of hell. The other has been transformed by an encounter with the risen Jesus and desires everyone else to encounter the risen Jesus in their own ways. Two pro-lifers engage in advocacy. One is driven to keep the right people in political power and views pro-choice advocates with total contempt. The other cares passionately about the dignity of unborn humans – as well as about the dignity of the mother, and of all human beings, including those she most disagrees with. She treats all of them with honor and respect.

This is where spiritual discernment comes in. Catholics have a tendency only to use that word only in asking massive questions such as, “Am I called to become a priest?” We don’t always realize that God intends discernment to be a daily practice for us. We can notice what he is doing and engage in a response of love throughout the day.

Like a lover wooing his beloved, God is always stirring up desires in our heart. We have the freedom to grow in those desires and bear fruit. Unfortunately, our deepest and most intense desires are often buried beneath our fear and shame. That actually makes sense! The evil one HATES our God-given desires, and wars against them early and often.

The only way to uncover our deepest desires is to welcome the healing and transformation that Jesus brings. And the only way to experience that is (~gasp~) to die and rise with him. Can you see why so many of us prefer to be “driven” by fear and shame?

Are you “driven”? If so, are you ready for a change?

Hoarding vs. Hope

Advent is a season of hope. During these darkest days of year, we watch and wait.

In our human experience of suffering, we abide and keep a sober vigil. In moments of powerlessness, frustration, anguish, agony, or grief, we cry out for a redeemer and savior. We feel the depths of our emptiness and need, and we hope. We feel the ache acutely and cry out with heartfelt longing, Come, Lord Jesus!!

That’s the ideal, anyway. But let’s face it, hoarding can feel safer and easier than hoping.

At the mention of “hoarding,” we immediately visualize particular people, places, or things. I’m not talking about the medically diagnosable condition of hoarding. I am using the word in a broader, all-inclusive sense.

Most of us are hoarders in one way or another. It’s something we do to protect ourselves against feeling powerless, or against feeling grief. It gives us a sense of power. It props up the illusion of being in control.

Sometimes we hoard physical objects. We cling to what we no longer need; we clutter our living space. Throwing things away means feeling grief and loss. It is a death, and we don’t want to die. Keeping an open and inviting living space feels naked and vulnerable. We don’t like feeling powerless.

But we also hoard by cluttering our schedules with unnecessary commitments. We feel less like a failure because of the things we say “yes” to – even though we inwardly resent all the things we “have to” do. We avoid the pain of conflict and live with the clutter and chaos of too many commitments.

We hoard by only tackling the tasks we feel confident about, while repeatedly avoiding the ones that would risk failure or expose our weakness. We may even push those undesirable tasks onto others, shifting the blame onto them, or criticizing the failure of their valiant attempts.

We hoard when we hold onto comfort and ease, resisting needed changes. We want our churches to feel familiar to us, to be our own little nest. First-time visitors may feel uncertain, ashamed, or intimidated. We wouldn’t know, because we talk to the same familiar people, ignoring what others are needing or feeling.

We hoard when we suffer in silence rather than humbly reaching out for help and risking rejection. We cling to others, expecting them to meet our needs without actually asking. We do things for them in “service,” calculating that now they have to give us something in return. If I am entitled, then no one can reject me, right? In all these behaviors, we might even style ourselves a “martyr,” but the real martyrdom is happening in the people around us who have to put up with our behaviors!

We hoard with our addictive behaviors. We soothe ourselves with our screens, with our sugar, or perhaps even with impulsive cleaning and organizing – which may seem the opposite of hoarding. But it depends on why we are doing it. Is it a kindness to self and others, or is it avoiding and numbing what I don’t want to face or feel?

We hoard when we surround ourselves with busyness, noise, or talking. We resist silence and stillness. We cannot stand to slow down and actually feel our loneliness, our grief, or our anger. We would rather pretend they are not there.

But then how can we hope?

Every human heart holds the capacity to hope. As Augustine of Hippo said, “You have made us for yourself, O Lord, and our heart is restless until it rests in you.” Within each of us is an insatiable desire, an intense longing for the living God. But will we allow ourselves to feel it?

Hope can really hurt. To hope is to desire and not yet possess. That means that hope will include suffering. Hope will include grief. Hope will include vulnerability, even feeling powerless. We don’t like those experiences. And we hate to wait!

Thankfully, God is a good Father who delights in us as his children. He sees our struggles and loves us as we are. He knows our tendency to hoard; he gazes lovingly at us even as we repeatedly and relentlessly protect ourselves against him. We are so often like the dog hiding his head under the blanket. God smiles, and calls us by name.

Yet God honors our freedom. He desires us to desire him. He will not force or coerce. Like a lover, he pursues and woos us. He gently prods us, inviting us to admit how naked, blind, and miserable we actually are (cf. Revelation 3:14-20). We desperately need Jesus, but we do not like to feel the depths of our need.

Jesus’ coming brings true comfort, lasting peace, and abundant joy. Even in this world, he helps us to taste and see the goodness of the Lord. He blesses us with an abundance of love. Our hoarding hearts keep crying out, “It won’t be enough!!” and Jesus keeps assuring us, “My grace is enough for you; my power is made perfect in weakness” (2 Corinthians 12:9).

Will we surrender our supposed control? Will we set aside our pseudo-comforts? Will we allow ourselves to grieve and mourn? Will we remember that we have here no lasting city, that we are pilgrims passing through? Will we abide in hope?

Come, Lord Jesus!!

Learning from St. Benedict

This three-month period of Sabbath renewal has been a blessing to me – including my monastic companions here at a Benedictine monastery. Their Rule and way of life offer so many lessons, and I will be glad to share some of them in the weeks ahead.

I had the joy, last month, of traveling to Oregon to join in the celebration at Mount Angel Abbey as five monks made their solemn profession of vows. I wept as I watched the monks freely and wholeheartedly giving themselves over in vows of obedience, stability, and ongoing repentance in their faithfulness to the Benedictine way of life.

The vow ceremony includes stunning rituals that invite the monks into a dying and rising with Jesus. I felt deeply stirred with desire and longing, as Jesus continues inviting me to open my own heart to both sorrow and joy as I learn to abide in love and truth. Over the past four years of my life, I have learned again and again that I cannot experience the intensity of joy without also welcoming the depths of sorrow; I cannot exalt in the surprise of the resurrection without a willingness to enter the heartache of Good Friday and Holy Saturday. The Lord keeps gently inviting me to open my heart freely and fully, assuring me that those who embrace poverty and mourning will be truly blessed by the Father. The vow ceremony gave me so much encouragement and assurance of God’s covenant faithfulness to his promises, and was truly a taste of the feasting we will all share in the Kingdom.

The abbot presided over the vow ceremony – he who will be a longstanding spiritual father to these men in their years ahead. He beckoned them forward lovingly and then asked them what they were seeking. Their response: “I desire to share in the sufferings of Christ in this monastery until death, that I may also share in his glory.”

He spoke to them of the seriousness of the covenant they were about to enter: “I set before you a way of life, which images that of the Lord himself.” It is a renunciation and a dying, but also a claiming of the victory of the Cross. They freely responded “I do” to their vows, and then, one by one, read and displayed to the congregation their signed covenantal letter. The abbot tenderly took each one by the hand and led them to the altar, where they put pen to paper and sign their statement.

Then came the Suscipe prayer, which moved me so deeply that I am still returning to it in my prayer a month later. The five solemnly professed monks processed up the aisle and three times paused to extend their arms out horizontally and cry out to the Father: “Accept me, O Lord, as you have promised. Accept me, and I shall live. Do not disappoint me in my hope!”(Psalm 119, verse 116). I was struck by their posture in making this prayer. It evokes Jesus’ dying on the Cross, but they are also presenting themselves like little children begging daddy to pick them up and embrace them. They are choosing to be totally vulnerable, to risk all, to open themselves up in hope – and surrendering themselves into the Father’s hands. How often have I resisted abiding in hope – it definitely hurts to desire but not yet fully possess. It feels so much easier to distract myself from the longing than to stay in it! Over the years, my heart has both longed for and resisted being taken up into the Father’s hands. This attitude makes sense – given that I have often felt betrayal and powerlessness. The ritual stirred a fire in my heart that melted much of my ambivalence.

My mask was only beginning to be drenched with my tears as they proceeded with the ancient burial ceremony. In front of me this whole time had been one of five black cloths draped over the pew. The five newly professed monks prostrated themselves on the floor as the mentor who had guided them on their journey draped one of these burial cloths over each of them. Meanwhile we somberly chanted words that echo Colossians 3:3 “I have died, and my life is hidden with Christ in God. I shall not die but live, and proclaim the works of the Lord!”

The abbot proceeded with the offertory of the Mass – offering to God not only gifts of bread and wine, but these five newly professed monks. All was to be transformed by Jesus, taken up into the mystery of his dying and rising. The abbot incensed not only the gifts on the altar, but the five prostrate (and “buried”) monks. As all of us priests gathered around the altar for the Eucharistic prayer, the five monks remained in front of us, beneath the veil of death.

Following the Great “Amen,” as the congregation rose to pray the Our Father together, the schola joyfully chanted, “All you who sleep, awake, awake! Rise from the dead! Christ has enlightened you!” And the monks rose to new life with Christ. My heart soared with joy as I watched each of them re-emerge into the light.

The life of a monk is an already-but-not-yet. Even now they claim a foretaste of both the dying and rising of Jesus. Even now they gain a glimpse of his glory. I certainly enjoyed a taste of the goodness of God’s Kingdom that Saturday morning on the Mount of Angels in Oregon, as I shared the experience with them. Such joy never lingers forever, but reminds us of the good things to come!

You can view livestream footage for the entire vow ceremony here.

Spiritual Bypass

This summer marked the 15th anniversary of the animated film Cars. The movie breathed life and personality into dozens of vehicles, including the cocky and arrogant young racecar Lightning McQueen, who unexpectedly gets stranded in the rusted and rundown town of Radiator Springs. Initially seeing no value in this long-forgotten place, he undergoes a deep conversion and learns many life lessons. He also comes to appreciate the story of the town, once great, then sliding into decline with the introduction of the I-40 bypass. Whereas travelers along Route 66 used to take their time to linger and enjoy this scenic stopping point, these days they just zoom on by along the bypass.

As many of you know, I am currently going through a few trainings for pastoral ministry to God’s beloved children experiencing unwanted behaviors or addictions. In them, I’ve come across a strikingly similar metaphor, encapsulated in the term “spiritual bypass.”

Spiritual bypass happens when you or I use our spirituality as a way of avoiding difficult experiences or undesirable emotions. In the name of being spiritual, we can actually evade and avoid the most difficult aspects of discipleship! When we do so, our bodies and souls suffer in much the same way as the town of Radiator Springs. Through chronic neglect, little by little, things begin to crack and crumble. The more this decay happens, the more we prefer to avoid, and the more alluring spiritual bypass becomes. And so the vicious cycle continues.

You can see how these cracks offer fertile soil for the weeds and rotten fruits of addictions. But addictions are only one of many such weeds. The great spiritual authors over the centuries remind us that sins of the flesh (lust, gluttony, drunkenness, etc.) can actually be less serious than envy, passive aggression, gossip, self-righteousness, or pride. Think of the story of the repentant tax collector versus the proud Pharisee (“thank God I’m not like _______”). Think of the story of the younger son and older son in Luke 15. Both are far from the heart of their father; both are avoiding his love; both are miserable.

Spiritual bypass often gets woven into the very fabric of our families and our church communities. For example, we from the upper Midwest are notorious for being “nice” – and thinking ourselves kind. Niceness is not the same as kindness! Niceness avoids conflict. Niceness pretends not to be angry. Niceness does not know how to sit with sadness, but tries to minimize or fix or anesthetize the pain of the situation. Kindness, by contrast, can be intense and messy. It takes great inner strength just to be with someone who feels deeply sad, angry, or ashamed.

In my personal journey, the Lord has definitely been inviting me and teaching me how to stay present in the face of awkward or painful situations. Historically, I did one of two things. Most of the time, I got small, hid my true self, or took the “nice” path out and compromised things that were deeply important. Occasionally I powered up, perhaps shifting my tone or raising my voice, perhaps making a subtly shaming comment that shifted the burden onto the other person. I regret those moments and the damage they caused.

But I am learning to be patient with myself as God works repairs in my heart. Healing and recovery is incredibly hard work. It’s tempting (like Lightning McQueen) to think I can re-pave the neglected and damaged street in a short time. It takes much patience and consistency – not to mention much help and encouragement from true friends. After nearly five years of diligent work walking my own healing path, I am beginning to discover that I can stay present and stay my true self even in challenging situations – without taking the bypass. Every inch of reclaimed pavement is worth celebrating.

I simply wasn’t capable for a long time because I was bypassing my own heart – including neglected streets that were crumbling in sadness, loneliness, fear, and shame. If present interactions caused me to begin feeling those things, it made sense that I would react instinctively and either flee or fight. God made us with survival instincts and defensive capacity.  For a time, we probably need these defenses. We may need, for a season, to be in a state of spiritual bypass. We can’t face everything all at once. We’re not ready until we are ready.

My heart is ready, O God, my heart is ready. So sings the psalmist. After years of preparing my heart, the Lord gently and kindly showed me how very much sadness and loneliness I had stored up. For me, the experience of coming out of spiritual bypass has been amazing, intense, and painful all at the same time. Sister Miriam James Heidland compares the experience with someone coming in from the cold with frostbite. To be in one’s heart and feeling again is both good and intense.

My prayer life has definitely shifted amidst this process. It is more tender and vulnerable, more about a love relationship with the Father, and more about receiving again and again all that I need. Ironically, I pray far more consistently. It’s less and less of a “should.” I simply need it. I need prayer. I need Jesus. I need the anointing of the Holy Spirit. And I desire all these things. I ache for them. I long to see the face of the Father. That, for me, has been the very best part about ceasing spiritual bypass. Returning to my place of heartache also opens up the freedom and capacity for my heart to ache for God. It renews and deepens faith, hope, and love.

Perhaps the best discovery of all has been to realize the stunning beauty of the human heart – my own heart and that of others. Yes, there is sin there. Yes, it’s a mess. AND we are beloved children of God, fearfully and wonderfully made, “very good” in his own image and likeness. You can’t appreciate the beauty of the town from the bypass. You have to slow down and spend time there. Then it captivates you. The beauty God has poured into the human heart is absolutely stunning – if we are willing to abide there amidst the mess.

I invite you to consider your own journey of following Jesus. In what ways do you take the bypass? Does it feel easier to avoid anger, sadness, fear, loneliness, or shame? How do you react when others around you feel or express those? How do they experience you? Do they feel safe and find it easy to open up to you about the deep things of their heart? Why or why not?

Does it feel easier to “say prayers” to open up in a tender and vulnerable relationship? Do you let yourself feel the ache of longing and desiring without yet fully possessing?

Jesus reminds us that the road is wide and easy that leads us to destruction. Taking the spiritual bypass is so appealing because it is wide and easy while pretending to be deeply spiritual. Engaging our story in the town that is our heart involves a dying and rising.

Above all else Jesus commands us to love the Lord, our God, with all our heart and mind and soul and strength. Yes, we may need to use the bypass for a time in our life, especially if we do not have the support and the resources to face the hard work that will be involved. But so long as we stay on the bypass, there are parts of our heart that are not being consecrated to the Lord, and therefore not receiving his blessing.

Wholehearted discipleship is certainly challenging! But it is worth it. You and I are worth it.

Religion or Religiosity?

Religion isn’t exactly gaining popularity these days. Even though most people believe in God or some higher power, fewer and fewer people are willing to be associated with religion.

“I’m open to spirituality, but I don’t have any interest in religion.” I think some of us experience a visceral reaction when we hear such statements. However, rather than immediately perceiving a threat, rather than shifting to a posture of judgment or discouragement, it may behoove us to be curious and ask, “why?”

Why does this or that individual no longer want anything to do with religion? Each person has a story, and we can often be surprised by what we learn. However, they may not tell us the whole truth unless they really believe we are going to listen. If they intuitively sense contempt or condemnation, control or manipulation, they won’t feel safe enough to share their story (and who could blame them?).

Many of our families – including our church families – have been toxic and dysfunctional. Often, under the pretext of religion, we have been guilty of “religiosity.” As a result, many would-be Christians, some of them deeply hurt and betrayed, have decided they want nothing to do with religion. In many cases, it is not actually religion that they are rejecting (much less God himself), but a “religiosity” masquerading as religion. If so, in some cases the attempt to reject religion may actually be a step in the right direction! When a family becomes dysfunctional, the “black sheep” is sometimes the one with the highest level of personal integrity! For example, I think of that great scene in The Adventures of Huck Finn in which Huck chooses to be a “bad” Christian and to risk “going to hell” by doing the unthinkable and helping a slave escape.

What is “religion” anyway? I would invite everyone back to the root meaning of the word.  Religio in Latin comes from re-ligare: to “to re-bind” or “reconnect.” Authentic religion heals and restores our relationship with God, our relationship with each other, and our relationship with ourselves. It restores wholeness and integrity; it leads us into true and meaningful connection, intimacy, love, and unity. If it does not do those things, it is not authentic religion!

Notice that authentic religion is both objective and subjective, both real and relational. Many today (even Wikipedia!) make the mistake of viewing religion in purely subjectivist terms – as though religion is the product of our efforts to make meaning out of life and human existence. To be sure, seeking and finding meaning is incredibly important. It is God himself who placed that insatiable yearning into our hearts. Yet God is real, independent of human seeking and striving. He has really revealed himself, and he desires us to find fulfilment in our desire for him by being received into real relationship with him. Religion is ultimately initiated by him and freely responded to by us in the new and eternal Covenant.

On the flipside, in the name of “the truth” many Christians today have forgotten about the real relationships involved. Much like the Pharisees, they have slipped into religiosity, which becomes a distortion of authentic religion in a manner that turns people away from the living God.

I confess to Almighty God and to you, my brothers and sisters, that I have often been guilty of “religiosity” in the name of religion. I have focused more on being right than on forming a deep and meaningful relationship with the person in front of me. I have focused more on trying to coax or convince others to do the “right” thing, rather than attuning to the deep desires of their hearts and noticing what God is doing there. I have held contempt toward those who disagree with me rather than practicing empathy and seeking to understand them deeply in their own story, and especially in their suffering. I have clung to resentments rather than entering into authentic grieving, which allows me to manifest God’s mercy from the depths of my heart.

There are some, in their clinging to religiosity and claiming to represent the Church, who have gone so far as to fixate on condemnation and hellfire in unwholesome ways. For them, the “Good News” becomes all about avoiding hell personally and then deciding which other people go there. Loving others means “saving” them by turning them away from hell by whatever means necessary: name-calling, fear-mongering, shaming, manipulating, or coercing.  Perhaps the greatest irony occurs when we Christians call ourselves “Pro-Life” and then engage in these behaviors that are so against the dignity of the human person, and so clearly against Jesus’ commandment to do unto others as we would have them do unto us. Who among us honestly desires others to call us names, to manipulate us, to coerce us, to shame us, or to motivate us by fear? These tactics are spiritual abuse. They are not religion. If we have ever engaged in them, may we repent and make amends!

Yes, hell is real, and the Good News is that I don’t have to live in hell anymore! We tend to think of hell and heaven as future realities, but they begin even now, already-but-not-yet. The humble person is willing to admit that his life has become a living hell, and that he cannot save himself. It is Good News indeed to discover an authentic path to freedom and peace, and to enter into real relationships through authentic religion (authentic “reconnecting” with the living God, restored relationships with others, restored integrity of oneself).

If our religion is real, our relationships will be thriving: the Trinity will dwell within each one of us ever more fully (as our desire increases daily); we will experince vibrant and joyful relationships with each other; we will manifest a deep respect for and rejoicing in the dignity of each human person; we will foster the unique flourishing of each culture; and our unity and love will be palpable. It will not be the bombastic unity of one person playing loudly and insisting that others join the refrain, but the stunning symphonic harmony of many diverse instruments, all conducted by Christ and each breathed into by the one Holy Spirit of God.

I repent of my religiosity and renew my desire to grow into real religion. Do you?