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 Religion-less Christianity?

 

Both as a child and as an adult, church has been a very large part of my life. Shortly after my kids were born, my wife and I helped start a Quaker congregation that was a foundational part of our family’s life. In the last two years, however, my family and I have found ourselves on a journey outside of any formal church. We’re feeling called to experiment with new ways of doing faith community. It has been confusing and lonely at times, and also satisfying and life-giving.

 

My family is not alone. A recent report says that the percentage of people who attend formal worship services at least once/month is down to 43 percent, from 53 percent in 1983. Yet 57 percent of people said they pray at least once a day, up from 54 percent in 1983.

 

Many of us are leaving churches, but still practicing faith. We still need community to support that faith, and to support each other. How do we do that?

 

In his despair with the German church’s lack of response to Nazi atrocities, the Lutheran theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer started looking for what a religion-less Christianity would look like. He boiled it down to two essentials–prayer and righteous action. As a Christian who had seen himself as a pacifist, this led Bonhoeffer to the radical act of plotting Hitler’s assassination.

 

What might religion-less Christianity look like for us? Here are a few hints I’m seeing.

 

My family has dinner with some family friends every Monday. After we eat, we read a Bible passage from the lectionary and our families act out the passage. Last week my 12 year old son was Jesus just before he was killed and I was a soldier helping arrest him. I felt the power of the story in ways I never had before.

 

Last month I was facilitating a day-long work event that was a stretch for me. I asked 5 friends that I pray with to pray for me and the others at the event. I felt more relaxed, confident, and trusting in that work than I had before. I felt upheld by their prayers and attention.

 

I know a man who was homeless earlier in his life and now has a business selling soup. He wanted to give back to the community by offering a free community meal each weekday. A local Lutheran church offered their kitchen and basement for the meal, and it started this winter. Now people in the neighborhood who are hungry for food and community gather each day for lunch. When I was there recently, someone at my table said they were looking for a secretary job. Someone at the table next to ours that we didn’t know said their organization was hiring a secretary and they talked about how she could apply. It felt like church to me.

 

Janet, our host for this blog, says that church for her is “intimacy with God and God’s people.” I love that definition of church. For me, the essence of church is the ongoing practice of paying attention to that intimacy and following where that leads us.

 

Organizational churches can support or get in the way of religion-less Christianity. The church that offered its basement for a free community meal is cultivating community without the requirement of religion.

 

For me, it isn’t as simple as just getting rid of the institutional church. For religion-less Christianity to thrive, it needs many things that churches traditionally offer–space, spiritual education, continuity and tradition, accountability, and more. My journey with religion-less Christianity is very incomplete. I’d love to hear what you are finding. I’ll post an update on my experiments next month on this blog.

 

 

 

Today, in our “What is church?” challenge we encounter a family of four with their 6-word answers. And we hear from a mom in her thirties and a pastor of a multi-cultural church.

 

6-Word Descriptions of church by a family of four. Isaiah is 12, Grace is 9. Jenny is the mom. Michael is the dad, both in their forties. Having been Quakers for many years they are now exploring new forms of spiritual community.

Isaiah: joyful fun wilderness enthusiastic movement
Grace: full of life, games happy truthful
Jenny: full of life, community joy service
Michael: Moving together with the Holy Spirit

 

Essay on “What is Church?” by Jessica Sanborn, a thirty-something mother of three. She is on sabbatical from church and the practice of law.

Going to church was my world growing up. Consequently, I think that both my world and my understanding of church were too small. Even as my church world started to feel confining and surreal, I would never have imagined that a time would come when I stayed home, as a rule, on Sunday mornings.

On my last morning as a Sunday regular, I walked into our church service and immediately and uncontrollably started shaking and crying. As I sat down, I remember “hearing” distinctly: “You do not belong here.” That phrase was gentle and hard. I knew that I had to go, and it scared me because it meant leaving my world as I knew it.

At first, I thought that this panic attack was due to stress and an overload of anxiety. Which it was. But now I wonder if this was also my call to step out into a wilderness, to disentangle myself from the familiar and safe. I don’t know that I would have left any other way.

Encounters with God occur in the wilderness, don’t they? Encounters that leave us limping and undone. And isn’t that when we find Real Life?   After we let go and are undone?

I wonder if this wilderness time is also an invitation to a different understanding of Church?

An invitation to Church as More. More than Sunday mornings and outreach. More than small groups and potlucks.

An invitation to a Church that is broad and deep and ancient and new. To a Church that cuts across time, culture, politics, gender, creed, and denomination. This Baptist daughter has much to learn from Catholic saints and poets, from Episcopalian scholars, from liturgical practices, from ancient rhythms.

Maybe I needed to learn that church is not the best place to listen for God’s word. I’m finding that I listen best in silence. I’m discovering God’s word in the woods, while I wash my floors, and while I hold my children. I keep finding myself in the stories, like I am living the word somehow.

Maybe I needed to learn that church is not the only place to worship God. My presence can meet God’s presence in my room, in my car on the drive to preschool, in the kitchen while I am chopping vegetables, or just staring out of the window watching birds fly across the sky.

Maybe I needed to realize that church is not the only place to form a fellowship for our journey. I often had the nagging suspicion that we got so busy doing church, we didn’t have time to be the Church. I was so busy with life and church that I hardly had time to know my neighbors, let alone love them. I’ve found this aspect of church tricky while both attending and not attending. But now I have more space, both in time and heart, to walk beside those around me.

I kept hoping that church would provide a place to belong, like it did when I was in youth group. But maybe I needed to learn to belong to myself, to God, to the world around me, as part of the fellowship of seekers and lovers.

My wilderness time is a time of learning to be. I wonder if this time is also about learning another way of being Church.

A way that is not limited by denominations or sanctuaries.

A way where we join anyone who is living as God’s hands and feet in this world.

A way where we walk alongside others who are listening for the call to follow, wherever that way may lead.

A way where we wake up into a spirit life that is free and uncontainable, like the wind.

A way where we escape the jar of yeast, thrown into the batch of flour, transforming the world around us as we are also transformed.

A way where we experience Real Life like a spring erupting in our very beings.

Maybe someday this way will lead me back into Sunday morning fellowship and participation in a local church. But in a new way–with a spacious and grateful heart, new eyes, listening ears, and a new appreciation for my place in the broad, eternal ocean of grace and God’s love.

 

In this essay Kelly Chatman shares his view of church. He is an African American pastor of an inner city multi-racial protestant church. He’s been pastor there for more than 12 years. He is in his fifties.

What is church to me?   I believe the church is the most powerful institution in the world. The church is the only institution I know that says that no matter who you are or where you come from you are welcome here. This is important to me because I believe a basic human desire is to know that we are safe and that we belong. When the church is fulfilling its promise the church is a place of safety and belonging. The liturgy, gathering the experience of worship is an enactment of “oneness”. When we worship God is present and everyone is welcome, there are no exceptions!

Church to me is where people learn and develop faith and the belief that God cares and we are not alone. The church teaches and encourages learning through intellect and experience what is sacred. Church is not limited to a building, congregation or denomination but is the discovery of how and where and how we experience God in the world.

The church is where I invest my hope as a place or experience where people experience and explore their connection to a community. I am an African American pastor in a denomination that is primarily White and in numerical decline. In our history we have struggled to fully include all people.  The church for me witnesses to a man named Jesus who came as Son of God and he welcomed people with different social, racial and economic backgrounds.  The Jesus and church I know welcomes everybody, gay, straight, rich, poor, black and white.

What is church for you?

How does that affect the way you live your life?

How is your view of church different now than it was in your childhood?

 

 

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Miriam Leading the Women in Celebration

This quilted icon depicts Miriam, the sister of Moses and Aaron, leading the women in celebration after crossing the Red Sea. Since women were usually marginalized in that culture, it is unusual for a woman to be named a prophetess and even more unusual to lead anything!

“Then Miriam, the prophetess, the sister of Aaron, took a timbrel in her hand; and all the women went out after her with timbrels and dancing. And Miriam sang to them: ‘Sing to the Lord, for he has triumphed gloriously…'” Exodus 15:20-21

I call this hearty group the Red Sea Band!

I chose to name the women after my favorite women in scripture and give them more modern instruments. So from the top clockwise are Miriam, with the necessary casseroles, Tamar on tamborine, Lydia on electric guitar, Mary Magdalene on drums, and Hannah on Native American flute.

Janet O. Hagberg, 2013. All rights reserved.

Reflection on this icon:

What most attracts you to this icon?

Which woman do you most identify with and why?

How has God triumphed in your life?

What makes you want to dance and sing?

“ New Life for Dry Bones”

Ezekiel 37 (NRSV)
He said to me, “Mortal, can these bones live?”
I answered. “O Lord God, you know.”
He said, “Say to them, O dry bones, hear the word of the Lord…
I will cause breath to enter you, and you shall live…
and you shall know that I am the Lord.”

Psalm 23:6 (NRSV)
Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life
and I shall dwell in the house of the Lord my whole life long.

© Janet O. Hagberg, 2007

Reflections on this icon

What do you see in this icon that speaks to you?

When have you felt as if you were just a pile of dry bones?

How has God asked you to speak to your own “dry bones” situation and let God breathe new life into you?

What wisdom or gratitude has emerged from your dry bones experience?

Our Bodies as Temples: God as Bodiographer

It has taken me a long time to consider my body as a good place for me to live. So to consider my body as a temple of God is a holy stretch. My body felt like my betrayer, my enemy, my challenge, my source of embarrassment and shame but certainly not my friend. How could God even consider my body a dwelling place, desiring to be at home there? I shuddered to think about it.

If I were to write an auto-bodiography, the first half of my story would be a slowly evolving tragedy. Although I was athletic and took well to most sports and outdoor activities, I did not eat well or listen to my body when it called for modification. So I ended up with frozen shoulders from over work and major surgery from the stress of staying too long in a lethal business partnership. I didn’t know how to grieve all the losses I experienced in my younger years so I stuffed the grief and it lodged in my body.

And my sexuality was a source of pain and sadness for decades. From a childhood of religious fear and repression about my sexuality, I emerged a naïve and vulnerable young adult. I was not prepared to cope with sexual harassment from a boss or sexual issues in my married life. I had no mentors or role models. In fact no one talked about their sexuality. I tried to figure it out myself. I acted out. I doubted my worth, questioned my loveability. I would not have even thought of bringing God into my body because I thought God was part of the source of my pain, bringing me shame and a sense of worthlessness.

It wasn’t until I entered spiritual direction that I even considered that God might want to dwell within me, in my body—and that was quite uncomfortable at first. The closer I got to God, the more I realized that God not only wanted to live within me, God wanted to heal my body, my cellular memory of abuse and harassment, my poor sexual self image, my shame and complicity in allowing ill treatment, my grief about my treatment of others. Once God entered with me on this healing journey I had more confidence that one day I might see myself as whole, attractive and loveable. It is not an easy journey and it is life-long, but I’ve found it to be graced and life-giving. I sought out books and people who had healthy body images, took a few workshops and prayed for healing. I decided to make this journey with my body primarily a spiritual journey and it took me beyond facts and techniques, even beyond medical information, to that place where the journey connected with my soul. That made all the difference. God guided me on this journey. God became my bodiographer.

One major change I needed to make was to reframe my relationship with my body. It slowly became my friend, my messenger, my early warning system, my truth teller. I found out my body wanted to take care of me and heal me. It never lies. It tells the truth because my cells remember. So now I listen to my body. When I am taking on too much responsibility my shoulders ache. When I am not nurturing myself my stomach hurts. When I am in the presence of an abusive person my abuse muscle (across my right scapula) quickly tightens. When my center of gravity is shifting to a new place in my life or I am fearful about money, my lower back aches. When I am afraid to move forward, my hips act up. Many times my body knows what I need before my brain acknowledges it. If I ignore or bypass the messages they often hang on or get worse.

I still use the benefits of modern medicine but I listen equally to my inner messages. Heeding the message is sometimes difficult, if, for instance, the abusive person I am reacting to is an employer, friend or client. But I’ve learned that wisdom comes from trusting and then acting on the message. Now I can say no to inappropriate touch and not even feel guilty. And if I am making a major decision I often put it out on the table and see how my body reacts to it before I step forward. Sometimes my body tries to protect me from old pain/fear by warning me about going forward. So I need to soothe and reassure it, if I feel God is calling me to move. If it relaxes with my reassurance, I go forward. With my body’s help, I can discern what is a life-giving challenge and what is too risky.

I’ve learned that my body responds well to self-care. If I am good to my body it responds to my love. Even when I am in pain, if I do simple things to soothe my body it seems grateful. For instance, when I am feeling low or my back aches I go for a walk. My body craves the slow motion of walking and the fresh air. Oh, and dancing. It is pleasure and exercise all rolled into one. Dancing to slow rhythms allows me to move in ways that gently stretch and work my muscles. Two other body responses that I find particularly dear are tears of meaning and chuckles of joy. Whenever either of those happens spontaneously I know my body is in sync with my spirit.

God has taught me that no matter what pain I’ve had or even caused in my body, it is still a temple of God, where God dwells. God always offers a healing touch. I do not have to be cleaned out or disinfected for God to dwell in me. God desires me as I am, no matter how I look or feel. I may never be cured of my maladies but I can heal my memories and be a witness to God’s spirit dwelling within me. I do not need to become my pain. My pain can become my friend.

And wonder of wonders, my own healing has become part of my calling; to be a safe place of conversation and healing for people with body issues, particularly for young adults. They crave having someone listen respectfully to their stories about their bodies and their sexuality as they explore their vision of themselves as temples in which God dwells.

© Janet O. Hagberg, 2010. All rights reserved.

Reflections on this essay

When you consider your body God’s temple what issues emerge?

What is your auto-bodiography? Where is your joy and pain in that history?

How is God involved with your body in its healing?

How do you care for your body?

How to you listen to your body? What are its unique messages to you?

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