Always be ready to make your defense to anyone who demands from you an accounting for the hope that is in you.I Peter 3:15 (New Revised Standard Version)Be ready to speak up and tell anyone who asks why you’re living the way you are, and always with the utmost courtesy.I Peter 3:15 (The Message)Be ready always to give an answer to every man that asketh you a reason of the hope that is in you with meekness and fear.I Peter 3:15 (King James Version)Christianity, for many, has come to mean anti-intellectual, fanatically narrow-minded people. Christianity, for some, is neither faith nor reason – just reactive tribalism hiding behind the skirts of Mother Church…I move in some circles where the word Christian means he knows nothing about history, nothing about politics and is probably incapable of civil conversation about anything. Five Bible quotes are the available answers to everything. How did we ever get to this low point after developing such a tradition of wisdom? How did we ever regress to such arrogance after the humble folly of the cross?-Richard Rohr, The Wisdom Pattern
What we’re for
People more easily define themselves by what they are against, by what they hate, by who else is wrong, instead of by what they believe in and whom they love.
A friend told me about a conversation with a parishioner, part of discussions about spiritual growth and their own experiences of faith. As they talked, this parishioner told my friend: “I prefer to self-identify as Episcopalian, not Christian.” I wished for the opportunity to explore that statement with this parishioner, to hear her story, to share my understanding that our Anglican tradition is deeply rooted in the story of Jesus, i.e, unavoidably Christian. But I also had a sense of what she might have meant. In our culture, word association with the word “Christian” does not always suggest good news. People think that word denotes judgmentalism, hypocrisy, a particular political agenda. This woman wanted to make clear: “I’m not that!”
Here’s a cheery Monday morning excerpt from Richard Rohr’s book, The Wisdom Pattern. He offers this observation of our culture: “The soul, the psyche, and human relationships seem at this point to be destabilizing at an almost exponential rate. Our society is producing very many unhappy and unhealthy people…The postmodern mind forms a deconstructed worldview. It does not know what it is for, as much as it knows what it is against, and what it fears.” This insight struck me not only because of the character of this toxic political season, but also because I had recently been talking with some church leaders about the state of our church.
One priest who grew up in a fundamentalist church said that for much of her life, her religious energy as an Episcopalian had been about defining herself by what she was not. Now in her own parish leadership, she recognized that her church was filled with people who were at the church in a defensive, reactive mode, many deeply wounded by other traditions. I’ve met those folks. Their company includes not only those raised in intense religious environments. I’ve met folks wounded by the fact that they were raised with no religious tradition. And of course, there are way too many examples of those wounded within the Episcopal tradition. So it’s understandable that people define themselves by what they’re not, or what they’re against, or who they are mad at.
In our work with congregations through RenewalWorks, we often find people react negatively to particular religious language, and to the ways religious questioned are framed. We often hear: “That’s not how I speak. That’s not how Episcopalians speak.” One of our coaches, an apt listener, heard this comment and responded: “I understand. So tell me. If that’s not your language, what is your language? How would you put this into your own words?”
We all have to do that work. As we think about our spiritual lives, our beliefs and our practices, especially the ways we put faith to work in the world, how do we describe them positively? How do we affirm as well as renounce? How do we talk about what we believe as well as what we refuse to believe? How do we describe where it is we give our hearts? How do we talk about practices that are meaningful and transformative for us? Maybe you want to sit down this week and jot down a few answers to these questions.
At one point, Jesus pulled his disciples aside, and in perhaps the first example of public opinion polling, he asked: “Who do the people say that I am?” When he’d gotten a few answers from his disciples, with laser like focus he then asked: “And who do you say that I am?” How would you answer that question? What’s your language? What are you for? Who are you for?
On any given day, we can all point to the failures of religious , institutions, traditions and their practitioners. We can easily lapse into the prayer of the Pharisee: Thank God I’m not like that tax collector (i.e., those people). The challenge: How do we think about, talk about and act on the things we believe? How do we do so without being reactive, defensive, judgmental, fearful?
This coming Sunday gives us a clue. Jesus is asked to name the greatest commandment. He says it’s all about love, love of God, love of neighbor. Love is our language.
Consider a great resource in pandemic when we’re spending time at home:
RenewalWorks For Me is a personal guide for the spiritual journey, providing coaching to help individuals grow. It begins with a brief online survey which assesses where you are in your spiritual life. We call it the Spiritual Life Inventory. We believe that it might be a wonderful practice for this unusual season in our common life.
Once your responses have been processed, we’ll email a helpful explanation of our findings, along with some tips for improving your spiritual journey. You’ll also be given a chance to sign up for an eight-week series of emails that will offer some suggestions, coaching for how you can grow spiritually, and ways you can go deeper in love of God and neighbor. Learn more at renewalworks.org