You may have heard about Trinity Cathedral’s new offering Insights, a series of lectures and talks highlighting some of America’s leading religious writers and theologians. There are two more coming up in April that I hope to make it to, but I was able to go to the one on February 18th when Diana Butler Bass was the speaker. Bass has written nine books on American religion, and after holding positions at universities and as a columnist, her bio at the back of the book describes her now as an “independent scholar.” She’s gone rogue, I guess you could say, not because she’s any less grounded in her faith but I’m guessing it’s because how she understands religion and spirituality today isn’t necessarily fitting into a tidy, traditional category in the academy. In fact, her most recent book Grounded is subtitled Finding God in the World / A Spiritual Revolution because she thinks there is a spiritual revolution afoot. That revolution is intricately tied to finding God in the world, and the God we encounter in the world might be quite different from the God we have been taught to believe in.
Maybe she’s preaching somewhere this Sunday or maybe it is, as she said, her favorite Old Testament story, but Bass specifically spoke about Moses and the burning bush. I hate to reduce all of what she said to one takeaway, but a point she emphasized about Moses’ encounter with God was that even though Moses met God on holy ground, Moses’ understanding of where a deity was located was very much based on an understanding of a world where heaven is above, separate from earth. Whatever Moses’ awe and wonder and curiosity, there is fear because God came down to earth. While Moses does question God’s instruction and shows a reluctance to do what God is telling him to do, there’s not really any question about the fact that Moses is going to do what the great I AM is telling him to do. There is a sense of understood obedience, and it’s no wonder that he was obedient, given the show of power and might God provided and the dire consequences God subsequently showed for those who did not cooperate. There’s a sort of do-things-God’s-way-or-else understanding of God.
Paul in First Corinthians affirms such an understanding of God, reminding the Corinthians that “God was not pleased with most of (their ancestors)” who were following Moses and that “they were struck down in the wilderness.” Trying to bring a sense of order to his church plants, it makes perfect sense that Paul would appeal to the authority of tradition and the power of fear. A top-down theology, like a hierarchy, is pretty easy to understand, and it’s easy to maintain so long as everyone falls into their place. If they step out of line, they might get struck down, or they could be cast out. The consolation that the believers will not be tested beyond their strength can still come across as a bit of warning. To be safe, all should be upright and blameless.
If we have grown up with religion telling us what to believe about God and what to do based on those beliefs or else suffer punishment and/or eternal damnation, there is no wonder that our understanding of God is tightly woven with fear and judgment.
So when I read and hear Jesus’s parable about a man telling his gardener, “See here! For three years I have come looking for fruit on this fig tree, and still I find none. Cut it down! Why should it be wasting the soil?” what I hear is the litany of my own shortcomings, a lifetime of criticisms real and imagined. My inner critic or what Brené Brown calls the “gremlins” seize the opportunity to remind me how unworthy I am. I’ll never amount to much. I’m just as bad as the worst of the sinners, destined to perish. I’ll just get my handbasket, and you’ll probably need one, too, for where we’re going, where we deserve to go.
This tape I have playing in my head about my unworthiness and my inability to do anything good enough is based upon a judgmental, conditionally loving God. My striving for perfection is a fear of disapproval, that not everyone and especially not God will be pleased. But God’s love is unconditional. “God is faithful,” Paul repeats more than once, and I believe he says it with sincerity.
God is faithful and steadfast. God keeps the covenant. God has given us this wild and beautiful life, has been with us all the while, and we are good.
With life, God has given us choice. Yes, we will all perish; our mortality is certain. Yes, we get off track from God’s will and don’t make the best choices. We perish and die like everyone else, as Jesus said, unless we repent. Whether or not we perish in our life in Christ is up to us.
Repenting does not mean that we call to God and God turns toward us. When we repent, we turn toward God who has been perfectly God all along. When we repent, we see our shortcomings perhaps as God sees them: how they did not celebrate life, did not share in love, and did not glorify God. Most often we are sorry and ashamed, but God sees our repentance as well and good and looks forward to what we will make from our time of fertilization and toward the fruits we will bear. Our very repentance affirms hope and goodness in the world and ourselves, let alone our eternal life in God. This God tending to me is close and personal and knows the intense, intimate joy of mutual love: the psalm we read today conveys a thing or two about such a relationship.
The fastest growing sector in America’s religious landscape is the non-religiously affiliated folks, but it does not mean that these people do not believe in something greater than themselves. They might encounter their “higher power”–whom we call God–while sitting in a kayak on Lake Ouchita, while watching the sun set over the golf course, or while holding the washcloth on their loved one’s feverish forehead. These can be powerful Spirit-filled experiences. I think we would agree that God is very much present at those times, and we can affirm such spiritual experiences within our religious tradition.
But there are those who have no context for a religion that incorporates their spirituality, their personal experiences of God.
Rather than have to “buy in” to a particular religion, especially one that is going to tell them how to encounter God, they prefer to go rogue and encounter Spirit on their own terms. These folks often identify as “spiritual but not religious.”
I understand this perspective, especially as one who broke away from the tradition of my upbringing. What I know of God is greatly shaped by my experiences. I consider myself fortunate to have found a religious tradition in The Episcopal Church that makes sense to me both religiously and spiritually, a tradition that encourages me to continue to ask questions to learn and grow, drawing from a long history of tradition and the deep well of Scripture.
What I also know is the struggle of digging deep and the stench of manure flung far and wide as I grow in faith. There have been parts of me that have died in the wilderness, branches that have been cut down by choices I have made. I take for granted that I am here at all until something happens, like a man looking at me through tired eyes and tears, telling me God has saved his life twice in the past week from being cut down. He looks at me and cries, “Why?” We keep talking, and he’s sure that God has a purpose for him because God won’t just let him die. I pray with him, and he raises his hands in prayer, turning his head up toward God, I presume. I bow my head in reverence. This is a holy moment. Here and now. The man left in hope, in hope that he still has fruit to bear.
We have the tremendous challenge, responsibility, and opportunity to proclaim God’s presence in the world. This might mean each of us has to go rogue in some sense, too, departing from existing norms to break into the freedom of a life lived for and with God. Living into our relationship with God through the Body of Christ, it is up to us not only to recognize God in the unsung glories and small miracles of everyday life but also to recognize and call out when we turn away from God individually and corporately. It is up to us to give witness to the presence of God in our sufferings, when that manure is hitting the fan, when we’re still deep in the wilderness, and the hope of resurrection seems far off. It is up to us to teach what we have learned about life in this world when lived in relationship with Jesus Christ and with one another.
What I’ve learned and what you’ve learned in the ongoing story of our faith enlivens our religious tradition and breathes life into the church. The revolution is that our understanding of God is coming from the ground of our being, from our experiences, rather than us understanding God solely from what we’ve been told. God only knows where it leads us, but as long as we keep turning toward God and seeking God, as long as we grow in the way of Jesus, the only baskets we’ll need are those to harvest our fruit.