June 19, 2019

Another Look: Drawn to the Religionless

Nashville Cowboy (2017)

Another Look: Drawn to the Religionless

I often ask myself why a “Christian instinct” often draws me more to the religionless people than to the religious, by which I don’t in the least mean with any evangelizing intention, but, I might almost say, “in brotherhood.” While I’m often reluctant to mention God by name to religious people — because that name somehow seems to me here not to ring true, and I feel myself to be slightly dishonest (it’s particularly bad when others start to talk in religious jargon; I then dry up almost completely and feel awkward and uncomfortable) — to people with no religion I can on occasion mention him by name quite calmly and as a matter of course. Religious people speak of God when human knowledge (perhaps simply because they are too lazy to think) has come to an end, or when human resources fail — in fact it is always the deus ex machina that they bring on to the scene, either for the apparent solution of insoluble problems, or as strength in human failure — always, that is to say, exploiting human weakness or human boundaries. Of necessity, that can go on only till people can by their own strength push these boundaries somewhat further out, so that God becomes superfluous as a deus ex machina. I’ve come to be doubtful of talking about any human boundaries (is even death, which people now hardly fear, and is sin, which they now hardly understand, still a genuine boundary today?). It always seems to me that we are trying anxiously in this way to reserve some space for God; I should like to speak of God not on the boundaries but at the center, not in weaknesses but in strength; and therefore not in death and guilt but in man’s life and goodness.

• Dietrich Bonhoeffer
Letter to Eberhard Bethge, 21 July 1944

• • •

More from Bonhoeffer and one of his last letters today. I’ll admit that I was rather startled to read the words above. Not that I object to his sentiment, but given that my favorite Bonhoeffer book is Life Together, with its sublime consideration of Christian fellowship and intentional community, it is striking to hear him speak like this.

But I love this passage. I can relate.

Bonhoeffer complains here that religious people often speak of God when they can’t think of another answer for the unexplainable or when they express a need for God to provide some lack they perceive. However, as answers become available or solutions apparent, God no longer fits in the equation. Christians then have two choices: they can stubbornly cling to their old interpretation or forget it, chalk it up to limited knowledge in the past and find another insoluble matter of today for which God is the only answer. In this way we (for I am one of these religious folks too) constantly find ourselves “trying anxiously…to reserve some space for God.” Talk of God at times seems forced, born of fear that we might somehow steal glory from him if we embrace human capacity, knowledge, or achievement.

On the other hand, at times there can be a sense of ease when speaking of God to non-religious folks as God comes up naturally in conversation about matters of life.

I have found this to be true in my work as a hospice chaplain. When I enter a home, I often find myself among non-observant people. They don’t speak religious language or have religious habits. Most are just ordinary Midwestern folks who have lived in nominally Christian, common sense realistic environments and who have spent their years working, raising families, and dealing with the ordinary stuff of life.

And these are the things I talk with them about. I notice the pictures and knickknacks in their homes. I learn about their family backgrounds, significant events in their lives, their work, their hobbies. I try to take interest in what interests them, even if it’s something about which I don’t care much.

Sometimes we talk specifically about God, usually when they bring it up. In the context of a friendly talk about life I discover that people are often keen to consider spiritual or religious matters. As we converse, I stay away from jargon and try to keep it simple, but it’s amazing to me how these discussions can plumb the depths, even if the language remains basic.

I guess the point is that most of these folks haven’t learned the unwritten rules of religious discourse that pious Christians develop. They don’t feel pressured to insert God into a sentence or into their view of a situation just because it is expected. They are not worried about being seen as team players. Nor are they anxious to defend God. Unlike the Sunday School child, they don’t think every answer has to be “Jesus.” But they almost always welcome someone who will listen to them, pray for them, and speak kindly to them, and in that context spiritual language finds its natural place in our conversations.

Bonhoeffer notes that religious people tend to focus on matters of sin, guilt, and death — the “boundary” matters which only God can take care of. I wouldn’t deny that such things must be addressed, nor can I imagine that he as a Lutheran pastor would omit doing so. But I hear him saying that perhaps we Christians spend so much time at the boundaries that we are missing God’s presence in “man’s life and goodness.”

As a result, the “God” we are speaking of in our God-language may not be truly representative of the Creator and Incarnate One who redeemed us that we might be fully human and not less.

Monday with Michael Spencer: How We Sound to Those Who Don’t Believe

Note from CM: This is a really old Michael Spencer reflection, but one with which I identify more and more each day. It talks about the kind of craziness that is simply taken for granted in religious subcultures (in this case, the world of Christian evangelicalism/fundamentalism). Many have lived in this bubble for so long and have been formed to think and talk in certain ways that we simply can’t imagine anyone would question our jargon and persuasive techniques. I think it’s one reason why Bonhoeffer eventually said he felt more comfortable with the religionless than with the saints.

Even if you are not from this subculture, Michael’s words stand as a warning to us all. Don’t just assume that your little world is the be all and end all, and don’t expect others to understand if you don’t work at listening first, then speaking.

• • •

Monday with Michael Spencer

Today I listened to the preacher in chapel. Really, really closely for a change.

It probably wasn’t a good idea. See, God is giving me a gift. I’m starting to hear sermons like non-Christians hear them. I’m starting to feel what they feel, and it’s disconcerting.

It’s scary. Some of my Christian friends won’t like this, but that may be a good sign.

The first thing I noticed was the insulting approach tactics. The speaker had an object lesson, and took quite a while to work through the object lesson. In someone’s universe, people being forced to listen to a talk will have their minds pried open by these kinds of illustrations. You supposedly totally put aside that you are in church, that you are going to be evangelized, and you just think about the box of donuts or the picture of the puppy, or whatever. Then, while your mind is relaxed….bang! The real point comes flying out of the blue and jumps into your open mind.

This is cool. No…this is stupid. Anyone who is taken in by this sort of thing shouldn’t be subjected to religious appeals anyway. It’s unethical. But this is the way we approach unbelievers that we want to listen to us. We goof with them, and treat them like they have no idea what’s up.

Then it’s assumed we need Jesus. If you don’t know who Jesus is, you are lost right now. But assuming you know what Mel Gibson’s movie was about, you get at least something of what’s going to be the main issue of the evening. The speaker say that you need Jesus more than he says anything else. Over and over. We need Jesus. If you are awake to what’s going on, you know that it’s likely to prove true that anything and everything will be said until you finally admit you need Jesus. Does this seem like trying to get you to “break?” Yes.

There is, behind this appeal, a kind of crass sales pitch that really can make you angry. It’s like being told by the guy in your living room that you need a vacuum cleaner or Tupperware. You can’t help but feel that your “need” is really about this guy’s need to be right, or to make the sale. What you “need” is hardly his business, especially standing up there without really knowing you at all.

It must be insulting to constantly be told you need Jesus by someone who doesn’t know you. Even if you DO need Jesus, how about getting to know me at least as well as a telemarketer? You may even hear this guy say Jesus loves you and Christians love you….because they are telling you you need Jesus.

Gee thanks. I feel warm all over.

Of course, we have the Bible. The Bible is read, and quoted, with authority. It’s the bottom line, the final word on everything. It is the proof that this guy is right and everyone else is wrong. The fact that he isn’t explaining why the magic book is right, and your experiences and thoughts are wrong doesn’t seem to be on the agenda. You need to do more than accept Jesus. You need to accept the way this guy reads the Bible.

A preacher earlier in the week said he believed the Bible was true because it was controversial. Other people say it is just obviously from God. (Explain that please.) Or it’s full of proof by way of prophecies. Or the change in lives proves it. Or the sheer number of Bible-toting Christians proves it.

Is anyone else bored? This preacher was no better or worse than thousands of others: the appeal to authority was everywhere, and you are simply SUPPOSED TO ACCEPT IT. If you don’t, that’s proof you are on your way to hell. If you are going to heaven, you buy this without serious questions.

The content of the message? I have to admit, listening to it as an unbeliever might, it was so irrelevant I can’t imagine why anyone would listen. It would make sense to Christians, but to anyone else? Would anyone else ever start to find it interesting or worth believing? It was just a way to spend time yacking. Logic, reality, honesty. Not on the radar screen. We’re talking about filler for the weakened mind, and nothing for the serious thinker or seeker.

The real point is always the same: You need to accept Jesus. You need to accept Jesus. Whatever the heck that means. Best I can tell, you tell the preacher that you accept Jesus, and they say you accept Jesus, and from then on you get to tell people that you accepted Jesus. Say some religious things, do some religious things and join the Jesus team. Be one of the bunch that is sitting there nodding.

Perhaps nothing stands out as much as the total submersion of every word and action in the sticky-sweet, sappy overtones of being RIGHT and “You better listen to the guy who is right.” Christians live in this so much they can’t see it. They make absurd, ridiculous, bizarre, almost insane, fairy-tale statements as if they are run of the mill.

“Now when Jesus spoke to the Apostle John…”

What!! WHAT!!!!

Well, we’re not even stopping. That’s baby stuff. Have a miracle. Or some answered prayer. Or an incredible story. Or a Biblical example. Or a “can’t fail principle.” Or a talking snake, fallen angel or vision of heaven. These people have the book, they read it right, and they have the answers. They know what you need, and what everyone around the world needs. They will do the talking, and if you are smart, you’ll accept Jesus.

Is this the way it sounds most of the time? Are we really so insulated from real communication that we don’t realize how we come off?

Things I’ve Learned about Psalm 23

Things I’ve Learned about Psalm 23

A psalm of David.

The Lord is my shepherd;
I lack nothing.
He makes me lie down in green pastures;
He leads me to water in places of repose;
He renews my life;
He guides me in right paths
as befits His name.
Though I walk through a valley of deepest darkness,
I fear no harm, for You are with me;
Your rod and Your staff—they comfort me.
You spread a table for me in full view of my enemies;
You anoint my head with oil;
my drink is abundant.
Only goodness and steadfast love shall pursue me
all the days of my life,
and I shall dwell in the house of the Lord
for many long years. (NJPS)

• • •

For the last 14 1/2 years in my work as a hospice chaplain, rarely has a day gone by when I have not quoted, thought about, or prayed Psalm 23. In my work, and also in my life now, I find it to be like the “Swiss Army Knife” of scriptures. And even though I’ve always loved this psalm, and gone to it throughout my adult life and ministry, I have some regret that there were long stretches of time before I began to serve in hospice when it was a text that I kind of ignored.

Familiar scriptures can be like that, you know? Familiarity doesn’t exactly breed contempt, but it can breed a kind of taking for granted. Sure — Psalm 23 — the Lord is my shepherd — who doesn’t know that? It gets filed away and we pull it out when we think we might need it.

Let me tell you another secret: a lot of pastors, preachers, and teachers, frankly, think it is important to move on from simple and basic texts like this. In their view, they have become worn from use and have lost a bit of their punch. We are so enamored with finding something new that will get people’s attention, something that is fresh and novel, that we have a tendency to look down on texts like Psalm 23. What can we find new in an old text like this?

Friends, I’m here to tell you: I’m over all that. Maybe I’m just old and tired, but the longer I’m on this journey, the more I see how important it is to stay in vital touch with the basic truths of scripture, the fundamentals of our faith, the texts and traditions that keep us grounded and give us a clear path on which to walk.

Many people I meet, young and old, who are either in the final season of life, or who are caring for loved ones in that season — I find that they want “Amazing Grace” and “How Great Thou Art” sung to them. They want me to quote Psalm 23. They want to hear words like: “Your sins are forgiven,” and “I will never leave you or forsake you.” They want to receive reassurance that “nothing in all creation can ever separate [them] from God’s love in Christ.” They want me to pray the Lord’s Prayer with them. They want me to hand them bread and wine and say: “Christ’s body, given for you; Christ’s blood, shed for you.” They couldn’t care less about an innovative worship service — they want to be with their family, they want friends to visit, they want to relive the story of their life, they want a pastor to sit with them and pray for them. They want assurance about “the communion of saints, the forgiveness of sins, the resurrection of the body, and the life everlasting.” They want to hear “Grace to you, and peace.”

So, almost every day for me, I find myself returning to texts like Psalm 23.

There’s another reason the familiarity of a text like this can be a problem: We’ve heard it for so long that we think we’ve mastered it. However, I am finding all the time that there’s more to a text like this than meets the eye. I thought I would share a few of those things that I have learned as I have made this psalm a part of my daily life over the past 15 years or so. Perhaps this well-known and well-loved scripture can come to us today in new and fresh ways as well.

The first thing I’ve learned about Psalm 23 is that it is a psalm about life, not about death.

I don’t think it’s wrong to say that most of us associate Psalm 23 pretty strongly with funerals and with life-threatening situations. I’ve already told you that my work has led me to go to this psalm on an almost daily basis. I use it at every funeral I officiate as well.

There are a couple of reasons for this. First, it is a wonderful psalm for the troubled times of life. It emphasizes God’s comprehensive care for us, and mentions specifically some of the most disturbing troubles we face. One of its most famous lines is, “Yea though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil for thou art with me, thy rod and thy staff they comfort me.” Another of its lines says, “I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever,” which makes most of us think of heaven.

Actually, the first line is probably better translated, “Even though I walk through a valley of deepest darkness.” The picture is of a shepherd leading his flock to pasture and having to take them through shadowy, rugged ravines that were frightening because they were dark, the footing was difficult, and there were natural hiding places for predators.

As for the last verse, when it says, “I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever,” it is a reference to the Jewish Temple in Jerusalem, and should be understood as, “I will find a home in God’s temple for years and years to come.”

Nowhere in this psalm is the psalmist talking about death. He is talking about various seasons and circumstances of his life. He talks about his need for nourishment and refreshment. His need to be set right when he falls down. His need for guidance along good paths. His need for comfort and reassurance in the dark and scary times of life. His need for God’s blessing and help when he is surrounded by his enemies. And so on. No matter what the circumstances, no matter what season of life he finds himself in, he knows that his Shepherd is with him, providing for him, helping him, directing him, strengthening him. God’s goodness and steadfast love pursue him each and every day of his life.

I think it is entirely appropriate to use this psalm at the time of death and at funerals, but I want to encourage you primarily to see it as a psalm about life, about every day of life, about every situation in life, about every need in life. You and I are not alone, and we do not lack resources as we go through different seasons and circumstances in our lives. No matter what we encounter, we can benefit from the life-giving, life-affirming, life-sustaining gift of this psalm!

A second thing I’ve learned about Psalm 23 is that I have tended to view this psalm as serene and comforting, but I missed the rugged nature of its imagery.

Maybe it’s the green pastures and still waters, but I think most people hear Psalm 23 and they get a sense of peace, comfort, quiet, serenity. It’s pastoral. It’s soothing. In some cases, we might even think of it as soft and sentimental.

Let me ask you a question: Have you ever met a shepherd? A rancher? A cowboy? A farmer? Someone who works with animals, tends them, builds fences for them, clears land for them, fights away predators, leads them up mountains and down through valleys to safe pasture? Even if you haven’t, can you imagine what such a person is like? I doubt the words “soft and sentimental” come immediately to mind.

From my earliest days as a pastor, I have had assignments in rural congregations full of people like this. And I’ll tell you what: I dreaded shaking hands after Sunday morning worship! One guy I used to know regularly teased me about my soft “pastor’s hands,” as his huge, calloused paws swallowed mine when he left church.

If Psalm 23 gives us peace, it’s only because its main character is a strong, rugged, wind and sun-weathered, hard-working Shepherd who doesn’t take vacations and rarely even takes a break because he has animals to care for, a flock that depends on him for every need. When I officiate a funeral now for one of these kinds of folks, I speak on Psalm 23 and express appreciation for people who work hard and lay down their lives to provide for their families, their property, and their flocks and herds. They’ve followed the example of the Shepherd.

So, as you think of Psalm 23, let it lead you to appreciate the strength and rugged love that keeps us fed, keeps us going, keeps us safe, and keeps us in the way of Christ.

A third thing I’ve learned about Psalm 23 is that I have often missed the Jewish and royal nature of this psalm.

The final product of what we call the Old Testament took place during and after the Babylonian Exile, when God’s people watched their own homeland devastated and then were taken forcibly to another land to live in captivity. I doubt that few of us can really understand the impact of that on the Jewish people for generations. That’s when synagogues were born, and that’s when they began collecting and working on putting together their sacred scriptures.

When this psalm was read during the Exile, I would imagine that its second part became even more important to those captives. Have you ever noticed how the imagery changes in verse 5?The psalm goes from being about a Shepherd guiding his flock to being about a Host providing a banquet. This matches the setting of captivity that the people were in. No longer were the people of Israel being led and provided for in their own land, in their own homes. Now they were living in the presence of their enemies.

But even there, Psalm 23 says, in the presence of my enemies, God spreads a table for me, God honors me as his guest by anointing my head with oil, God sees to it that my cup is kept filled to overflowing. Even in exile, even in captivity, the Jewish people who read these words were reassured of God’s presence and care.

The psalm also has unappreciated royal imagery. The term “shepherd” was what Israel called their king. When Psalm 23 says, “The Lord is my shepherd,” it is confessing that Yahweh, the God of Israel, the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, the God who led them out of Egypt, the God who raised up David and Solomon and the prophets, this God is my King. The nation of Judah had seen the downfall of their human kings in the Exile. But they still had a King.

Also, when it says “I will dwell in the house of the Lord for many days” at the end of the psalm, it’s talking about the Temple in Jerusalem, which had been destroyed and leveled in the Babylonian invasion. The word “temple” means “palace” in Hebrew — it was where the King lived and ruled. The final line of Psalm 23 was a confident statement of hope that God’s palace would be restored, that God would once again rule as King in Jerusalem, and that God’s people would be with him there.

Knowing these things gives me a background and life context for Psalm 23. It helps me understand how real people of faith in real circumstances gained comfort and strength from this psalm. It also helps me appreciate even more what Jesus meant when he came along in John 10 and said, “I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep.” When Jesus said those words, he was not just using a familiar metaphor, he was claiming to be the promised King of Israel, who would shepherd his people out of exile and restore their life through his own death and resurrection.

In that same passage, he says, “I have other sheep that do not belong to this fold. I must bring them also, and they will listen to my voice. So there will be one flock, one shepherd.” That looks forward to the inclusion of the Gentiles, people like you and me. The Lord is our Shepherd-King as well, and he has brought us out of the captivity of our sins.

Let me share one final thing I’ve learned about Psalm 23 — I’ve learned to appreciate the shift from 3rd person to 2nd person in this psalm.

The psalm begins in the 3rd person: The Lord is my shepherd. He makes me lie down. He leads me. He restores my life. And so on.

But there is a point in the psalm where this changes. And I think it’s significant. Right where the psalmist begins to talk about going through the valley of deepest darkness, it’s as though it’s no longer sufficient for him to talk about the Lord in the 3rd person. Instead he begins to address the Lord in the 2nd person. “Though I walk through a valley of deepest darkness, I fear no harm, for You are with me; Your rod and Your staff—they comfort me.” From that point on, the person who had been talking about his Shepherd, now talks to his Shepherd. At that moment, a statement of faith is transformed into a prayer of trust.

And that I think, my friends, is the greatest lesson of all that I have learned from Psalm 23.

Don’t just acknowledge the Shepherd who cares for your life.

Talk to him, look to him, trust him.

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