Do not fret...

In the past few days I have seen a number of comments from friends and colleagues - and received a variety of personal notes - expressing a deep sorrow - even hopelessness - about the fate of life in the United States. Some have experienced this economic recession in harsh ways: they are without jobs, struggling just to pay interest on houses they can't sell, relocating to other job markets just to find NOBODY is hiring, etc. Others sense that their trust in Obama was misplaced - or at least high jacked. - and one year into his administration they feel betrayed. And some, to paraphrase Rick James, want to go apocalyptic on your ass because it is clear that St. Bob Dylan was right: money doesn't talk - it swears!

+ The US Supreme Court decides to keep treating corporations as individuals - a long and sordid history in itself - and reverses any hint of campaign finance reform.

+ A retrograde state senator from Massachusetts - with TONS of outside money - is able to exploit Americans fears and confusion about the political status quo to become the maverick from New England. (Just for kicks, take a look at two movies: Nashville and more recently Bob Roberts.)

And what about those same bright, well-heeled suburban citizens of Virginia and New Jersey who voted for Obama LAST year have now flip-flopped (again) and returned Obama's opponents into office? Like St. Marvin Gaye asked in 1970: what's going on? (Check this clip out as both a prayer of lament and a clue about where to find something of God's heart in the real world.)

Marvin got the question right: what IS going on? And this is where a grounded, biblical faith SHARED AND EXPLORED IN COMMUNITY can make all the difference in the world: the faith community - not the individual - but the community has been empowered by God to help us move from fear and despair to radical hope and action. Sadly, because the West has become so hyper-individualized - spiritually and socially atomized - we don't know how to search and pray in community. We really don't understand faith communities as the source of our healing and the font of hope. So, it is no wonder so many of us feel hopeless and bereft of faith.

The alternative - and I tend to think the antidote, too - involves a commitment to a faith community (not just a tradition, but a living, breathing, imperfect but tender gathering of people) where we can explore three inter-related insights:

First, in times of social upheaval and fear the community can always discover signs of hope and renewal by reclaiming the texts (and people) who have been moved/pushed/forced to the edges by the status quo. Walter Breuggemann, Hebrew Bible scholar extraordinaire, notes that whenever the arrogance of power or the myopic vision of greed and war dominated Israel's actions, the poets and prophets of the day began to explore the wisdom of the Bible from the perspective of who and what is being left out and excluded?

+ What voices are being silenced or forgotten?

+ What insights have been banned or buried?

By going back to these voices, texts and peoples the prophets of Israel were clear: THIS is where we will hear something of God's healing and redeeming truth. It will often be painful to hear these sounds - it will break our privileged isolation and cause us to see the consequences of power - but these voices will also align us with what is good, noble, holy and true.

+ Think of Jesus calling the official religion to task by resurrecting the blistering critique of Hosea: go and learn what this means - the Lord your God wants compassion not empty acts of religion.

+ Think of Micah denouncing the rituals and habits of his people by singing this song: You already know what the Lord requires, O Israel: to do justice, to love compassion and to walk with humility with one another and God.

Second, in addition to listening and living in solidarity with the poems, cries, songs and people who have been pushed to the edges, the prophetic testimony teaches that it is impossible to do this all by ourselves. We are neither strong enough, patient enough or dedicated enough to stand and deliver as individuals. Rather, we need others to encourage us when we want to give up, call us into accountability when we try to fake it or flee to say nothing of help us carry our burdens when we are just worn out.

+ St. Paul speaks of this as living as a part of the body of Christ, Jesus calls it being a community of disciples who work and walk the road of faith together and the prophets of Israel called the people back from exile time and time again to become the whole people of God NOT just a collection of individuals living next to one another, but a people living in concert.

+ Isn't that what the founders of AA discovered? When they tried to overcome alcohol or addiction, they could make it by themselves for a day or two - sometimes just an hour - but when they regularly came together and told their stories... they could stay sober until they came together again. So one day at a time they discovered that somehow there is a spiritual power unlocked by community that supports healing and hope.

How did that living spiritual/musical collective, U2, put it in "One?" We get to carry each other, carry each other. It is not a privilege, but a necessity - there's nothing romantic about it, it is hard work. And it is the only way we can overcome despair...

Having been a part of a faith community in a leadership role now for almost 30 years one of the things I have seen is how much contemporary people fight the discipline of community. We are so trained to be individuals - often so addicted to our own wounds and dramas, too - that we will blame our churches, synagogues and mosques before we will give up our pain. "I don't get anything from worship... I don't like the music... I find God's love more present out in nature." And on and on it goes.

+ But here's the real deal: this life - and your life - is NOT all about you! And you will never find God's peace or serenity if you stay locked in your self-absorbed isolation.

+ So blame away - mourn and weep and cry into your beer, too - but it will not get any better until you make the choice to join with others to walk together from bondage to freedom. (Excuse me if I get a little cranky at this point but I've seen too many people who want faith communities to fill all their emptiness and fix all their pathologies without showing ANY willingness to get over themselves. "Make me feel better - give me magic - take me outside of myself," they weep or demand - "just don't ask me to do this in community!"

And please don't tell me I have to make a real commitment to let go - become openly vulnerable - or share my true self and look foolish or wounded." It's like the beggars and broken souls who used to flee from St. Francis whenever he came into town: after he brought them healing, you see, he also told them to get on with a life lived in society - share your contribution rather than ask for handouts - and many preferred the security of their wounds to the health of living and sharing with others.)

And third, here's what happens when a community starts to embrace what has been pushed away and banished or forgotten: first we are humbled, second we find support and third we are offered a way of sharing the pain and fear together that leads to action. One of the GREAT and often forgotten psalms for this era is Psalm 37:

Do not fret because of evil people
or be envious of those who do wrong;
for like the grass they will soon wither,
like green plants they will soon die away.

Trust in the LORD and do good;
dwell in the land and enjoy safe pasture.
Delight yourself in the LORD
and God will give you the desires of your heart.
Commit your way to the LORD;
trust in the Lord and God will do this:
God will make your righteousness shine like the dawn,
the justice of your cause like the noonday sun.

Be still before the LORD and wait patiently for the Lord;
do not fret when others succeed in their ways,
when they carry out their wicked schemes.
Refrain from anger and turn from wrath;
do not fret—it leads only to evil...

A little while, and the wicked will be no more;
though you look for them, they will not be found.
But the meek will inherit the land
and enjoy great peace.

We do not know how to keep from fretting by ourselves: it is learned through practice in community. We do not know how to search the "arch of the moral universe" as Dr. King sed to say, "to see that it tilts ever so slightly in favor of that which is good and true and just." We learn that only by carrying one an other's burdens in community.

And we don't even know how to be still all by ourselves; that takes sitting beside a dying friend and holding their hand until the sad but sweet peace of death arrives. It comes only in community - it can be any kind of community - but being together in faithful patience is the key rather than flitting in and out like a WalMart shopper.

One of the REAL old timers, Huston Smith, put it like this: there is an important difference between spirituality and religion. Spirituality is a way of being open to God's spirit and it is essentially individualistic. It has it's place but religion - a shared commitment to a spiritual path - is what brings healing and hope. Think of it like this: religion is what keeps soup kitchens and homeless shelters open every day, not spirituality. Religion is what drove the Civil Rights and Peace movements, not spirituality. Because religion shows us how to move beyond selfishness into the hard work of loving in community.

Want to find your way back to hope - make a commitment to a faith community - ANY faith community. Want to see evidence that there is good and beauty in the world? Want to see a sustained movement of compassion that transcends fear and pain and national borders? Want to see God's word made flesh? Get thee to a faith community - it will never be perfect - but it will cure your loss of hope.

Now in closing this rant let me openly acknowledge that faith communities are not perfect: sometimes they are mean-spiritied, narrow and ugly. And... they are bigger than that, too, and the only place we can learn how to deal with disappointment, betrayal and frustration is in community as well.


Black Pete said…
I tend to express it this way: spirituality is the relationship with God--religion is the spiritual relationship manifested on the earthly plane.
RJ said…
Good words, my man. Thanks.
Black Pete said…
Wow. Forgot just how good Jack Cassaday was....!!

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