Why I Don’t Think the Magi Actually Happened, but Still Believe it’s True

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A 4th Century Carving of the Adoration of the Magi. Note that fifth person hanging around…and how Jesus is older. In Matthew this happened a few years after the birth.

The Gospel of Matthew has an agenda: it wants you to trust that the Jesus it speaks of is the same Messiah spoken of in the Hebrew Scriptures.

The writer (we call them “Matthew” but have no reason to believe a person named “Matthew” actually wrote it) is not unbiased.

The writer is not objective.

The writer is not very original, either.  Want to read an original writer?  The Gospel of Mark and the Gospel of John are super original.  Matthew cobbles his Gospel together from a few places.

We know that the writer used the Gospel of Mark, and some other sources, in the writing of this Gospel.  The writer quotes Mark directly in some parts, and goes off writing on their own in other parts.  Some of these non-Markan passages are also found in the Gospel of Luke.

And some, well, aren’t found anywhere else.

Like the story of the Magi.

BTW, I’m going to refer to the writer as Matthew and “he” from now on, but know that the only definitive reason we call it “Matthew” is because someone in the ancient world named it that, probably so that it would get wide readership.  Booklets that were attributed to Apostles got wide readership (which is why you don’t see the letters of Clement I and Clement II [which are faithful and wonderful and should be in scripture!], and instead find the scurrilous book of James included in the canon).

Here’s the thing, though.  If you understand Matthew’s point, you can see how the Magi play into Matthew’s working theology.  And through that lens you get the meaning behind the Magi.

And that’s the important part.

What’s not important? Whether it happened or not.  In fact, that’s the truth about a lot of ancient tales and sacred scripture.  It doesn’t matter if it happened; it happens all the time!  It doesn’t matter if it happened; it’s true!

That kind of lens is, I think, one of the things missing from the faith in these post-enlightenment days.  We want things to be fact, equating fact with truth.  But fact is not always true, and true things sometime never actually happened.

I can go on in another blog about that, but back to the issue at hand…

If Matthew wants you to see that the Jesus he writes about is the same Jesus, he’s going to go to great lengths to get you to understand it.

And so one of the things that Matthew is going to do is make sure that you see that the arrival of the Messiah in the world will have a global impact.  Kings, Magi, will literally bow down before him.

They have to.  It says so in Isaiah 60:3 and Psalm 68:29 and Psalm 72:10…and other places.

And Matthew is very concerned that you see that the Hebrew prophecies come true in the life of Jesus.

See?  That’s why Luke doesn’t include it: it’s not important for Luke to prove that to you.  He has other biases.  And that’s why Mark doesn’t include it: Mark doesn’t care about that, either.

And John?  He’s a lone-ranger on this sort of thing.  It’s a miracle that Gospel even made it into the canon (especially because Jesus dies on a Thursday in John).

The Magi prove Matthew’s point: the prophecies of old come to fruition in Jesus, and so kings, Magi, have to bow down to him, especially since Herod (we know) won’t.

But even though I don’t think it happened, I still think it’s true.  Why?

Because the Jesus story has had a global impact.  And that star that the  Magi followed inspired a whole generation of cosmic exploration by Christian scientists who furthered astronomy more than most know.  And the beautiful foreshadowing that happens in Matthew, by design I think, leads you to understand the nature of Jesus: gold for kingship, frankincense echoing the sacrificial gifts of the old temple, and myrrh because he will die (it was kind of like giving Jesus a coffin).

And what’s more, Matthew makes this wonderful political statement with the story of the Magi!

If Herod, the puppet king (who was ruthless, but historically not a terrible ruler), wouldn’t bow down before Jesus, these kings would.  And when Herod tells the Magi to return to him and tell him where Jesus is, they catch wind in a dream (dreams are important to Matthew because they’re important in the Hebrew scriptures [think Jacob, Joseph, and Samuel]) that they shouldn’t, and the Magi disobey.

The point?  When your rulers tell you to do something that your conscience won’t allow, you disobey, by God.  Literally: by God.

There are all sorts of true nuggets in this story!

And here’s the thing: your pastors probably know this.  But we don’t talk about it. Instead we spend time trying to find out how the Magi traveled and where they came from and what their names were (I love that part of lore, actually…it’s fun and true, even if it’s not fact).

And all of that is, in the end, like trying to describe how a number smells.  You can go round and round and get nowhere because, well, numbers don’t smell.  The story isn’t told because it happened…don’t get wrapped up in that!

In all of that we miss the points, I think.

Because the story of the Magi is important for Matthew, and is so true in so many ways.

But did it happen?

Well, it happens all the time.

It happens when people lay down their power and agendas in deference to God. It happens when people disobey their leaders because they’ve been asked to do in moral things, and choose the path of peace instead.

It happens all the time.

A “Come to Jesus” Regarding Christmas…

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Wonder what they’re celebrating? Hint: it isn’t Jesus’ birthday…because, well, timeline.

So, full disclosure: I was going to title this post “Jesus is Not the Reason for the Season,” but that was deemed too provocative…

Growing up we’d sometimes have a “come to Jesus” meeting amongst the family.  It was a moment to speak some honest truths that were hard to swallow.  It was never a moment to degrade or deride, but rather to just say some honest things that set the ground for going forward.

And I think, Beloved, that maybe we need to have a “come to Jesus” about Christmas.

And I think maybe we need to have this conversation because, well, I’m noticing some strident things coming from certain circles about Christmas, the nativity, and the whole season that are really just, well, inaccurate.

And, I think, probably a bit harmful in the long run.

Because here’s the thing: while your Christmas might be about Jesus…he is the reason for your season, and maybe my season…we have to be honest about the fact that it certainly didn’t start that way.

Humans, since we’ve been recording these types of things, have always celebrated some sort of festival of light at the solstice.  It’s a need within us for reassurance that shadows will not last forever.

We’re, when we’re honest, scared of the night.

And so our ancient mothers and fathers who lived in the north, when the ground became too hard to plow, took a wheel off of their cart, brought it inside, decorated it with greenery and candles, and lit one every night, trying to coax the sun back from its hiding place.

This became, over time, our Advent wreath.  It became a Christian symbol, but it didn’t start that way.  And it’s OK that it didn’t!  I think it’s better that it didn’t…because it makes it all so much more universal.

And that yule log that will adorn your Christmas table is a pagan symbol of the huge burning logs that were lit on the solstice, the shortest day, to last through the shadows.  It’s got holly and ivy on it, the masculine (prickly holly) and the feminine (flowing ivy) to weave together our humanity into the rhythm of the world’s seasons.

And that tree in your living room was a stolen tradition from pagans who used to decorate the trees, making them beautiful (and, sadly, Martin Luther did not first put candles on them, as the legend goes) to counter the cold, frozen days of winter.  Fertility reminders were important in the fallow days, after all.  The sun would come back. The earth would give crops again. Humans would continue to thrive.  The evergreen incorporated all of this symbolism and more.

Early Christians took these fertility symbols and started using them to tell Biblical stories, by the way.

That Christmas tree didn’t stand near the nativity in the beginning, but for early Christians it stood for, well, the beginning!  They’d replay Adam and Eve plays using those evergreen trees, hiding apples in the branches to retell Genesis 1 and 2.

It’s OK that we didn’t invent it, Beloved.  Let’s not pretend we did.

But now for the piece that gets me the most emails, and some recent “unfollows” on social media: the birth narratives in the Gospels.

Here’s the truth:

Mark, it looks like, thought Jesus was born in Nazareth.  He didn’t care much about where he was born, or at least care enough to write about it, so in Mark, Jesus comes wandering out of Nazareth.

John, likewise, doesn’t care where Jesus was born, but just about who Jesus is.  His birth narrative is cosmic, and John 1 is a retelling of Genesis 1 with Christ at the center.  It’s beautiful, poetic, and has a point.

Matthew and Luke are the ones who tell nativity stories.  And why?  Well, if you read them you’ll find out.

Matthew needs you to know that the Jesus of the Gospels (of the Gospel of Mark, specifically) is the same Messiah told about in the Hebrew scriptures.  So he goes to great lengths, jumping over many hurdles, to make sure that the Jesus you read about in Matthew harkens back to the depictions of the Messiah found in bits and pieces throughout the Hebrew texts.

He puts him in Bethlehem because that fulfills the prophecy. (Micah 5:2)

Joseph, his father, is a dreamer, which is intended to echo that Joseph-the-dreamer in Genesis.  In dreams he learns of Jesus’ birth.  In dreams he learns to flee to Egypt when Herod goes on his rampage, which should remind you, by the way, of Pharaoh trying to kill all the newborns in Egypt, with Moses, that other messianic figure in Genesis, surviving.

Do you see?  Matthew is replaying the story for a new generation of the faithful.

And Egypt is important because ancient prophecy noted that, “out of Egypt will come (God’s) son…” (Hosea 11:1)  So Matthew had to get them there.  This all worked out nicely.

Luke, too, places Jesus in Bethlehem, much for the same reason.  But unlike Matthew, Luke has the issue of getting them to Bethlehem, because his Gospel opens the scene with them in Nazareth…probably because Mark starts there.

So the Holy Family is from Nazareth.  But how to get them to Bethlehem?  Ah, yes, we’ll have a census happen, which will connect them to Bethlehem and the ancient prophecy.

Except that, in extra-Biblical records we can’t find any census happening around that time.  There is one that happens later, it turns out.  And I guess it’s possible that the whole timeline is wrong…but that’s not the point, friend.

I’ll repeat that: the timeline is not the point.  Literalism is not the point for these birth narratives.  The point is painting a Divine picture for you.

So Luke gets them to Bethlehem, and Jesus was born.

And all of those other questions on whether he was born in a “stable” or a “cave” or even the first floor of a house are interesting and fun ponderings but ultimately don’t matter.

Because it only really happens that way in Luke, and…yeah, I’m going to say it…probably didn’t happen that way at all.

Because that’s not the point.

For Luke the point comes a moment after the birth: with the angels and the shepherds.  Luke, the Gospel that pays the most attention to the marginalized and the disenfranchised, has the birth of the Messiah being made known not to kings in palaces or the rich elite, but to the shepherds, who weren’t even allowed to testify in the courts of the day because they were considered lying scoundrels.

This is lovely symmetry with the end of Mark’s Gospel where the only people who see the resurrection of Jesus are the women who…wait for it…weren’t even allowed to testify in the courts of the day.

So between Mark and Luke you see that the most important book ends of Jesus’ life and ministry are seen only by people who no one should believe.

And that, Beloved, is the point: Luke wants to reinforce the idea that the poor, the marginalized, and the one you least expect is the one God bestows grace upon grace toward.

Now, why bother saying any of this?

I love nativity scenes.  I have many of them.  I have an icon of the nativity right in front of me at the moment, actually.  It’s beautiful and meaningful and truthful in so many ways.

But it’s not fact.  It didn’t happen that way.

And it doesn’t have to have happened that way.  Because that’s not the point.

Matthew’s point is not that literal Magi traveled across continents to visit Jesus, but rather that God’s entrance into our space and time had a global impact.  And those gifts?  They were not real gifts, but symbols of his life, death, and resurrection.  Gold, for the treasure that he was.  Frankincense, for the offering to humanity that he would become.  Myrrh, because he’s going to die…and that’s what you wrap people in when they die.

These are not actual gifts they gave, but rather symbolized the gift the Christ is.

And Luke’s point is not that an actual stable, or even actual angels, appeared on the scene, but rather that the people you didn’t expect would be the ones to play a pivotal role in the life, death, and resurrection of the Messiah.

People like you.

And, back to the season at hand…

None of this would have happened in December, anyway.  You don’t put sheep out to pasture in December, Beloved.  You do that in June.  So even if Luke was trying to relate reality, we’re way off on our seasons in this era.

No, our date for the Nativity of Christ is another stolen piece that we took from those non-Christians who were dancing around bonfires at the solstice.  They were already celebrating, so the church changed it from the “festival of the undying sun” to the “nativity of the undying son.”

And it wasn’t even a major holiday for ancient Christians!  Pentecost and Easter were the two big festivals for the first church.  That first church would probably be appalled and confused as to why we’re bothering with this December holiday, anyway.  Maybe, if we want to keep tradition, we should abandon Christmas altogether as a Christian holiday and re-ignite a passion for Pentecost (see what I did there?).

And you know what?

Most pastors know this stuff…at least if they’ve had an education that moved past Biblical proof-texting or a glorified Sunday School (and let’s be honest: too much that passes for “seminary education” these days is a glorified Sunday School).

We know this stuff, but we don’t talk about it because, I think, we’re afraid of being caught up in culture wars.  Or we don’t want to deal with the emails that come from speaking truth into a season that has so many tendrils upon our hearts.  Or we don’t have the time, honestly, because it’s already so busy…

But here’s my larger point with all this: Jesus can be the reason for your season.  That’s awesome, and meaningful, and beautiful.

But let’s not pretend that Jesus was always the reason for celebrating at this time of year.

Christianity took the season and made it something for themselves, which we’re wont to do, and that’s OK.

And that argument on whether Jesus was born in a cave, a stable, a house, an RV?  Don’t spend too much time thinking about it all, because that’s not the point.

And this is why I think it’s harmful not to share some of this info with the church: you might miss the forest for the trees.  You might miss the point of it all.

The point is that God’s advent on the scene shook everything from floor to rafter (Matthew), that God would invite the least-of-these into the center of the Divine drama (Luke), that the baptism of Jesus would be his second birth into ministry (Mark), and that the Christ is woven into all creation (John).

The rest, as we say in the South, is just lipstick and rouge, ya’ll.

And I get that this all might be an inconvenient truth.  But in this season of beauty and wonder and awe, it’s OK to lift up scenes and stories that have so much embellishment!

In other words, the stories are true, even if they’re not factual.

And it’s only inconvenient if you need them to be factual to see their truth.

 

 

Would You?

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Terry Funk-“Barbed-wire Jesus”

What if Jesus came back today

in Kentucky?

But came as a little girl, skin as bronze as a penny, named Julia.

And that “laughing Jesus” picture you have

hanging in your hallway,

is laughing at how mistaken the depiction you’ve been looking at for years

turns out to be,

Would you follow still?

 

What if Jesus came back today in Honduras,

wandering homeless,

hands torn by barbed wire

eyes burned by tear gas

traversing borders,

…like God did that first time, trespassing over space and time,

the cosmos, reality…

struggling through the desert in Arizona,

deemed illegal by people who took this land from

other people who looked more like this wandering Honduran

than the Herod in the White House,

would you follow even then?

 

What if Jesus could care less

-actually didn’t give a shit-

about your “personal freedom,”

but rather wanted you to care about

everyone’s safety and right to live safe…

…and healthy…

…and honest…

…and righteous lives…

which would mean that you actually don’t get to

“do whatever you want”

but rather would have to first ask

“What would the Divine maker of a Divinely-loved humanity want me to do?”

And in response

you would have to give up your guns

and a good bit of your wealth

and challenge your voting record…

Would you still follow?

 

What if it turns out that Jesus cares less

about what you do with your body,

and more about how you treat

other bodies?

 

What if Jesus turned out to be sexually marginal

LGBTQIA+

because, he totally could have been, you know…

because we don’t know.

And you, now knowing that, would have to

upend all your moral inclinations…

Would you still follow?

 

What if this Christmas Jesus came back

demanding not your soul

(because that wasn’t the demand the first time around)

but your attention?

And when he got it he pointed it toward

those you overlook as you do your Christmas shopping

(and every other moment)?

 

“But Jesus,” you protest, “I’ve given you my heart!”

“Right,” he says, “and now that it’s mine I’m giving it to them…”

(and “them” is whomever you like the least in the world).

Would you still follow?

 

What if it turns out that everything you thought you knew

about Jesus

is wrong.

Would you still follow?

 

 

“Dare I Take That Away?” A Question Every Pastor Wonders…

1668-lec6-1536x865In the mornings we would stay with her, my grandmother used to rise around 10am.  She was a late riser because she was a late drinker and laugh-er and argument-starter, and would often be up to see the clock tick past 1am.

And she would come out in her night clothes, silk usually, paisley as I remember them. And slippers even though it was Miami, Florida.  She called them “house shoes,” and they were for tooling around the house in the morning, or for going out to the back shed to start the laundry.  But nowhere else.  She was a respectable Southern woman, after all.  You weren’t caught in your rollers or house shoes…

And she would come out of her bedroom in those night clothes, pour herself a cup of coffee in a 50’s-style cup that could maybe hold four ounces, and she’d make one egg, over-medium, and sit at the little kitchen bar on a stool.  She’d pull out a cigarette, pull out the paper, light the cigarette, sip the coffee, and slowly eat the egg while devouring the Miami Herald’s front page.

I can still smell it.

Ever since I was a little boy I remember this routine.  I don’t remember it deviating much, unless we had morning plans.  But usually “morning plans” started at 11am at grandma’s house.

That was morning.

She was a woman of routine and I loved her for it. I loved her in it.  I loved her, and she loved it.  Even if it was frustrating at times.

Grandma was also a woman who loved her God.  She had been raised in the church, a Methodist by upbringing, but “a Lutheran by choice,” as she would say.  The pastor of her church, the church where she would become the secretary, came to their door in Miami Springs one day, and as they gave him a cold glass of water he invited her and my grandpa to attend the church he was starting.

And they did.

She would talk about her faith.  Not like an evangelist, but like one who had been evangelized.  Honest conversations.  She saw meaning in everything…sometimes to her detriment, I think.  She’d come out with an illogical statement, how someone’s universe had flipped upside-down because of some crazy thing that had happened years earlier, and we’d say, “Grandma, that doesn’t seem right…”

She’d laugh in this cackle of a person who had smoked since she was sixteen and would say something like, “Well, it doesn’t have to seem right! That’s how it is!”

That’s how it is.

Every pastor I know, including me, struggles with the phrase, “That’s how it is.”  Because our knowledge of theology, our knowledge of the Bible, our thoughts about society and God and how they interact, intermix, and intertwine…it has all changed.  It’s changed from the 1940’s to the 1990’s, and believe-you-me, it’s changed from the 2018’s to the 2019’s.

It’s changed.  And “that’s how it is” never holds up in the future very well.

And so sometimes conversations end up overlapping.  Sometimes new theologians come out of seminary smelling like books and sleepless nights arguing about Tillich, with their box of ideas, and they enter into much more ancient sanctuaries where people hold entirely different boxes.  And as the pastors unpack their boxes, and the parishioners peer inside their own, they see different contents.

And it can cause discomfort. Pain. Hurt. Even, yes, harm.

Faith can change. But it need not be destroyed. Even if it doesn’t seem “right.”

My grandmother was a woman of routine, and a woman of routine beliefs.  The world worked a certain way for her.  And, yes, she could change.  She did change.  She became outspoken for LGBTQ rights and Civil Rights.  She spoke Spanish, and eventually learned how to drive in such a way that we weren’t all scared of her being on the road.

But the changes came slowly, as all change usually does.  And it usually came from her falling in love first.  With people who were gay.  With people who didn’t look like her, talk like her, or even think like her.

But there were some things that never changed.  She conceived of heaven in a pearly-gates, golden-streets sort of way, and that never changed.  And even though that’s not my seminary-trained, science-brained view of heaven, I don’t think I’d ever have wanted to take that away from her.

Besides, it’s not like anyone knows what the afterlife is like, anyway.

So, dare I take that away?  Or could I just walk with her, asking questions, exploring notions, and providing my own perspective as I listened to hers?

Theology is done in the pews as well as in the academy, and pastors need to remember that.  I need to remember that.  And while hurtful doctrines and dogmas can, and should, be torn down like the idols they are, not everything that the newly trained seminarian thinks is outdated has lost its meaning.

Tear down the idols and the isms, but dare we take away everything?  Can we not still sing _In the Garden_ even though the theology is largely crap?  Dare we not use the phrase, “Jesus died for us” even if we have many asterisks next to what the phrase means, and each of us will have a different corresponding footnote?

My grandmother, in her paisley satin pajamas and little cup of coffee had a good routine (though that cigarette was probably not helpful), and even though I had a different morning routine that I thought was healthier, dare I take hers away from her?

Instead, I learned to do my routine, and when she appeared, shuffling in the house shoes, I’d sit down with her at the bar, chatting, laughing, and occasionally enduring her telling me to “be quiet” because she couldn’t read the headlines and talk at the same time.

Conversation led to engagement, love, and yes, change.  For both of us in some ways. Frustrating change.

Things have changed.  And will change.  And even I will change, and the things I was taught will be questioned and reformulated one day.

But if it’s not harmful or hurtful, dare we take it all away at once?  It might be frustrating, but it’s a good question.

When I Think About My Children on Ash Wednesday

636239814887137802-Ash-Wed-5I know I write and talk a lot about my children.  They have totally changed everything about my life, and even much about me.

Like, just now, my younger son, who attends preschool at the church I currently serve, popped his head into my office and said, “I love you, Daddy!”  It’s totally changed my work day.

He does this every day, mind you.  It’s one of the things I wait for in the morning.  “I love you, too,” I respond.  He always waits around until I say it, letting his class go on down the hall.  After he hears it he’ll run to catch up with them.

We wait for love.

One of the most moving and meaningful things as a pastor is Ash Wednesday. On Ash Wednesday we get to do some public art: the public act of remembrance that you place on the foreheads of everyone who comes, from the oldest to the youngest, that we are dust.

That time is fleeting.

That the world buries us one minute, one hurtful act, one sinful offering at a time (much of which we participate in), and there is very little that we can do to stop it, so we should wait around to feel love whenever we can get it.

A few years ago on Ash Wednesday I was walking through the neighborhood in Chicago when a well-known gadfly said incredulously to me in my formal collar, “Gonna peddle some superstition today, eh Father?”

I ignored him.  But as I thought about it, I realized that if I was going to speak to him on one day, Ash Wednesday would be that day, because Ash Wednesday is the day where religion offers something that speaks to everyone, regardless of what they do, or do not, believe: you will die.

Dying is the leading cause of death.

The knowledge of our mortality is too much to bear sometimes, though. And as I mark my own babies with that cross, I always choke a bit. It is too much for them to bear, too.

And yet, with their bodies, they do.  Because cells grow cancer. Because heart disease and car accidents and suicide don’t seem to care about your age.  And my babies are made of cells, and ride in cars, and live, and it happens. To all of us.

But instead of being depressing, Ash Wednesday is like the day when we all communally hug the cactus of our mortality, hug the cactus that we do wrong and harm in this world, even when we do want to (but also, sometimes, we do want to) and remind ourselves that we are not gods.

We are not God.

And once we get that fact out of the way, somehow we start to truly live.  Like the cancer patient in remission who realizes that life is better spent on love than arguing.  Like the near-death experience that increases are thirst for life rather than makes us more fearful.  Like the person living with depression who, because the meds are finally working, smiles and laughs and realizes that they are worth it, by God.

When I think about my boys, my babies, my children on Ash Wednesday, I am full of hope.

I hope that they will embrace life, and death, and all of it with a gusto, with a big bear hug, as confident as they wear that cross, that sign of hope for Christians, on their brow.  I hope it reminds them to love really freely, and really intensely, and to wait for love, and stick around for it.  I hope it reminds them that they don’t have to do it all, they don’t have to be perfect, that nothing is unforgivable, and that they can admit that sometimes life is too much to carry alone, and that they aren’t alone even when it feels like that.

And, sure, my eyes will tear up, and I’ll choke a bit, but not because I will think of their death, but because I will think of how they can, they will, with their lives, and their love, overcome all that tries to bury them in this life, by God.

 

On Spiritual Heroin

6392110-depositphotos_27815151_original-1472641889-650-54cd1b8c1a-1492240092Dopamine.

That regulator of emotional response that infects our gray matter.

You get a little shot of dopamine when you see a social media post that you wrote gets a like. Or a share.

You get a little shot of dopamine when you eat a food you really love, and which is probably just a little bit (or a “lotta-bit,” as my kids would say), bad for you.

You get a little shot of dopamine when you’re involved in healthy and unhealthy sexual activity.

You get a little shot of dopamine in certain spiritual and religious settings, too.  Intense spiritual retreats or weekends that use physiology, sociology, psychology, and yes, some smattering of theology, can create a situation of euphoric high.

Not unlike a drug.

Connection. Creativity. All the feels…

The problem with the dopamine wave, of course, is that a trough follows. It always follows.  There’s no other way to make a wave.  You can’t have a wave without a trough.

And the real trouble, of course, is that if you experience a “spiritual high,” you may get the idea that “this is what God feels like.”  And so when you’re not feeling that high, you’re pretty sure you’re not feeling God.

And if you’re not feeling God, then you need to be finding God…

I have a few friends who are perpetual church shoppers.  They go from this big box to that big box, seeking out that spiritual high. Their excitement is always at its zenith when they find a new place.  But when the trough appears, or the shine wears off, or the lights fade just a bit, off they go.

I don’t blame them.  And I’m no better, perhaps. If I weren’t a branch manager, I might do the same thing. I don’t think I would, but I might.  I don’t know…but in looking objectively at it, I see the behavior without being in it, and wonder about it.

I can’t say if I’m again spiritual highs or not, actually.  Kind of like I can’t really tell if I’m against candy bars.

Because in theory, I am against candy bars in many ways.  They’re bad for your teeth, your diet, and your overall health.  Not just bad in excess, mind you.  They’re actually just bad.  And may be as addictive as nicotine.

It certainly can get your dopamine running.

And yet I eat candy bars sometimes. And I’ve had a cigar in my life once or twice.

We must be honest about this reality: we do destructive things on purpose sometimes because we enjoy them.

But we hopefully do them with clear eyes.

I worry, though, when it comes to spirituality, that the lens is foggy and the mirror is dark.

I’m not making a case for boredom when it comes to religion. Trust me: religion is making that case for itself quite well without my help.

But I am making the case for clear-eyed analysis of how we claim to experience the Divine; an inquiry into what we’re talking about.

Because an excess of dopamine creates monsters. Religious and spiritual fanatics who are willing to do terrible things.  Even believe terrible things about other people who don’t share the high.

Because they’re not thinking clearly.  They’re literally “doped up” on religion.

Modest, regular amounts of dopamine are necessary for creativity, courage, and pleasure.  It’s not that we don’t need it.  We do need it.

But when we regularly strive to get a rush from it, a high, we fall into the pattern of the addict, surviving the trough until the next hit, willing to do or believe terrible things to get the fix.

And yet the faith says that we’re not to survive, but to live.  Not live through the trough, but in it.

I’m wondering, out loud, if spiritual highs are less about God, and more about us.

More about our brain than metaphysics.

I don’t know.

But I do think they’re probably addictive.

And I wonder if the addiction is part of what has effectively wounded the mainline.

 

 

Is The Church Growing or Just Aging?

68747470733a2f2f7777772e67696674737465722e636f6d2f6e6577732f77702d636f6e74656e742f75706c6f6164732f323031332f30332f492d646f6e742d6b6e6f772e6a7067I was recently listening to Krista Tippett and Adam Gopnik wax eloquently on all matters of faith and doubt.  The original airing of this particular episode of On Being  was first heard back in 2015, but they re-played it in December of 2017.

And, of course, I just listened.  Which gives you some insight into how far behind I am in my podcasts.

But Gopnik, who is ethnically Jewish, though he doesn’t practice a faith (and, funny enough, has a Lutheran spouse) was talking about how at his family reunions he’s been noting how some relatives are growing, and some are simply aging.

And though he puts himself in the “simply aging” category, I disagree.  Because he defines “growing” in this sense as “still discovering” and being filled with a sense of awe and wonder.  And if you read any of his writing (and you should read ALL OF IT) you know that’s not true.

He’s growing, even in his old(er) age.

But it got me to thinking about the church, individual congregations, and this common life we share together.  I have to wonder: is the church at large, and your congregation in particular, growing? Or just aging?

And not in numbers.  But growing like a tree grows.  Like a flower grows.  Like a sea full of life, grows and swells.

Are you embarking on new territory?  Are you changing things up, and allowing yourself to be surprised at what happens?  Are you discovering new gifts you never knew you had?

Or is it all the same?  Familiar, but frozen?

And what about you?  Is your faith growing, or just aging?

Are you finding awe and wonder at new insights and new thoughts?  Has your faith evolved with your experience(s) of life and death?  Are your encounters with the gay community, the immigrant community, that ethnic community you historically have feared, changed the way that you see God and see yourself?

Have you grown past seeing God as some sky wizard pulling levers, or some Santa Claus keeping track of naughty and nice lists? Has God become, as theologian Paul Tillich says, “The ground of all being?”

Or is your faith unchanged, and therefore, unchallenged?

Perhaps in 2019 we can all take a bit of stock, communally and personally, to ask ourselves:

Are we growing…or just aging?

And if you’re afraid to ask the question, well…then you know the answer.