an adult faith in obscurity...

Funny? Synchronistic? Or both?  Whatever the foundation, all the books I am reading right now address the outdated ways we speak of the Holy. Interestingly, they are all written by women - as is the on-line Advent/Christmas retreat I am participating in - and therein lies the commonality. Clearly these women of faith, who have embraced the Christian tradition even as it has marginalized them, have found that their pilgrimage into a sacred, sensual trust requires a new vocabulary.  And rather than suffer through the soul-numbing work of simultaneous translation when they go to worship - or read theology - or celebrate the Sacraments, they are discovering new ways of talking about God.

Lauren F. Winner in Wearing God put it like this in the opening chapter, "The God who Runs after Your Friendship" about the metaphors we use to consider the ineffable:

Simply put, I felt very far away from God for some years. It was a long season, salty and bitter, but it did not last forever. During the months in which I was emerging from that season - the months in which I was beginning to realize that God had been there all along; that maybe what had felt to me like God's absence was actually a tutorial in God's mystery; that maybe it was my imagination, not God, that had faltered - during that emergence, I began to notice God darting hither and thither, and I began to notice that I was darting hither and thither near God, and I began to realize that my pictures of God were old.  There were not old in the sense of antique champagne flutes, which are abundant with significance precisely because they are old - when you sip from them you remember your grandmother using them at birthday dinners, or your sister toasting her beloved at their wedding. Rather, they were old like a seventh-grade health textbook from 1963: moderately interesting for what it might say about culture and science in 1963, but generally out of date. My pictures of God weren't Zeus on a throne, the Sistine Chapel God. Instead, m pictures were some combination of sage professor and boyfriend, and while sage professor and boyfriend might, as metaphors, have some true and helpful things to say about God, I found that neither of them had much to say about this new acquaintance I was embarking on, or being embarked on.

Like Winner, my words and pictures of God have changed over the years, mostly because the
old ones have worn out. Perhaps that is why I have found solace in the journey of Barbara Brown Taylor over the past year. Her trilogy of confession and questioning - Leaving Church, An Altar in the World and Learning to Walk in the Dark - have helped me ponder what it means to claim an adult faith as a 21st century Christian once the childish words have lost their value. And while her journey is not parallel to my own, her words ring true to me when she observes that after losing faith in the institutional Church to advance the love of Christ in the world:

Chief among (the reasons for my alienation) is the way the Christian teaching thrives on dividing reality into opposed pairs: good/evil, church/world, spirit/flesh, sacred/profane, light dark. Even if you are not Christian, it should be easy to tell which half of each pair is "higher" and which is "lower." In every case, the language of opposition works by placing half of reality closer to God and the other half farther away. This not only simplifies life for people who do not want to spend a lot of time thinking about whether the divisions really hold; it also offers them a strong sense of purpose by giving them daily battles to engage in. The more they win out over the world of the flesh, the better. The more they beat back the powers of darkness, the closer they God to God. The ultimate goal is to live with that d forever, in a bright heaven where the bottom half of every earthly equation has finally returned to dust. After years of using this language to pray, teach, preach and celebrate the sacraments, I fell out of love with it - not just the words themselves but also the vision of reality they represent.

Towards the end of Learning to Walk in the Dark, Taylor declares that she no longer has much of a vocabulary when it comes to talking about God. The Lord, whatever that might mean, is more of a relationship than an idea or even a well-defined being, In her chapter about "The Dark Night of the Soul," she writes:
I cannot say for sure when my reliable ideas about God began to slip away, but the big chest I used to keep them in is smaller than a shoe box now. Most of the time, I feel so ashamed about this that I do not own up to it unless someone else mentions it first. Then we find a quiet place where we can talk about what it is like to feel more and more devoted to a relationship that we are less and less able to say anything about. The slippage started with the language of faith, which I had spoken fluently for a long time. After years of teaching other people what words like sin, salvation, repentance and grace really meant, those same words began to mean less and less to me... (so I looked for words) with more nuance and force...

Me, too.In fact, a poem by Sheri Hostetler called "Instructions" strikes me as a better primer for faith than most of the others I once cherished:

Give up the world; give up self; finally, give up God.
Find god in rhododendrons and rocks,
passers-by, your cat.
Pare your beliefs, your absolutes.
Make it simple; make it clean.
No carry-on luggage allowed.
Examine all you have
with a loving and critical eye, then
throw away some more.
Repeat. Repeat.
Keep this and only this:
what your heart beats loudly for
what feels heavy and full in your gut.
There will only be one or two
things you keep,
and they will fit lightly
in your pocket.

The Abbess of the Arts, Christine Valters Painter, asked those of us on the Advent retreat to read Wendell Berry's poem, too:

To go in the dark with a light is to know the light.
To know the dark, go dark. God without sight,
  and find that the dark, too, blooms and sings,
   and is traveled by dark feet and dark wings.

So different from so much of my tradition that aches for the light like an addiction. Painter notes
that there is "an expansive Mystery which night calls us to... rest in the emptiness... and remember that the night does not call for doing but for being." It is the Via Negativa, the way of trusting the sacred relationship beyond linear knowledge, the journey into faith without facts, creeds or dogma. May Sarton explains this leap of faith in 21 words:

Now I become myself
It's taken time, many years and places.
I have been dissolved and shaken, 
Worn other people's faces...

... and then started to live beyond the certainty of light or words or even tradition. 

At this moment in my own inward and outward journey, there is certainly more clarity in the darkness than anything else. Not sadness, mind you, although there is a measure of loss. And not fear either because I continue to experience and encounter that love greater than myself in Christ Jesus. There is a refreshing humility - an unknowing - for me in all of this. Like Merton at the close of his life, I really do not know where Christ is calling me beyond watching and waiting.

My Lord God, I have no idea where I am going.
I do not see the road ahead of me. I cannot
know for certain where it will end. Nor do I
really know myself, and the fact that I think I
am following your will does not mean that I am
actually doing so. But I believe that the desire to
please you does in face please you. And I hope I
have that desire in all that I am doing. I hope
that I will never do anything apart from that
desire. And I know that if I do this you will
lead me by the right road, though I may know
nothing about it. Therefore I will trust you
always though I may seem to be lost and in the
shadow of death. I will not fear, for you are ever
with me, and you will never leave me to face my 
perils alone.  (Thoughts in Solitude)

When we left Arizona, I thought that my experience and knowledge might be useful in another struggling congregation. I had the arrogance to assume that I could be useful. Now, I'm not so sure.  Not that my ministry has had no meaning, but rather given these rapidly changing times of obscurity, I am coming to believe that  all I can really do is love and pray. I have introduced new ways of doing worship, new songs and styles of prayer; I have helped make intergenerational events common place rather than banishing children to the fringes as second class citizens. I have helped streamline our governance and focus our mission and ministries in the community. And I have consistently advocated for authentic radical hospitality for all who once lived on the border of faith rather than hip slogans and/or ironic, post-modern publicity stunts. But really the only thing that matters is sharing love and presence when it counts. Yes, people still want me to fix things: to ebb the flow of those leaving the congregation or bring comfort to their as yet un-confessed or unrecognized wounds. But all I can really do is be present in love and prayer. This, I suspect, is what an adult faith truly means for the 21st century - and probably always has, too.

Examine all you have
with a loving and critical eye, then
throw away some more.
Repeat. Repeat.
Keep this and only this:
what your heart beats loudly for
what feels heavy and full in your gut.
There will only be one or two
things you keep,
and they will fit lightly
in your pocket.

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