Friday, April 20, 2012

Andrew Sullivan and Disorganized Religion

It's as predictable as the clouds of tree-pollen in the early spring.   Whenever Easter comes-a-hop-hop-hoppin' down the bunny trail, major media outlets start preparing to have a provocative talk about Jesus.   With the chocowate wabbits and the pastels sitting in the supermarket seasonal aisle, we find our minds least a little the whole Christian thing, and so it's time for a bit of front-cover talk about the guy from Nazareth.

For Newsweek this year, the article was from Andrew Sullivan, talking about the Chrisis in Christianity as an organized religion, and the rise of folks just up and following Jesus on their own.

As a totally irrelevant aside, said Jesus appeared to be a hipsterish white guy, who appeared to have lead us into the middle of a busy intersection in the heart of New York City, where he's standing looking distant.  "Jesus?  Hey.  Um.  Shouldn't we be...HEY WATCH IT BUDDY...standing over there on the....YEAH WELL SO'S YER MOTHER...sidewalk?"

Still, odd selection of Jesus-location notwithstanding, much of what Sullivan said resonated, particularly if you've been around the churchy block for a while.   With the full recognition that the internet has moved on, I felt it was worth reflecting on.  As we're technically still in the Easter season, and that pound and a half we gained from sneaking our kid's chocolate bunnies is still in our midsection, I figured it was still worth talking about.

As examples of what we should be doing, Sullivan gives both Thomas Jefferson and St. Francis of Assisi.   Jefferson was chosen because of his legendary cut-and-pasting of the teachings of Jesus into a more Enlightenment friendly form.  St. Francis?  Well, he's just sort of cool, out there in your backyard statuary with a handful of birdseed.

As examples of what we shouldn't be doing, Sullivan lays out a familiar and warranted list of problems with organized faith.  Churches are fusty and stale.  Churches are just political entities, proxies for this party or that party. Churches are just businesses.  Churches are totally out of touch.  Churches are just self help groups.  Churches get in the way of that transforming relationship we have with Yeshua Ben Yahweh.   And so, as the argument goes, we may as well just forget about organized religion, and focus instead on Jesus.   Stop fretting about power, stop this endless misuse of Christ's teachings to justify ourselves, and start being changed by his radical teachings.  Follow him with your whole self, heart and mind and soul, and you're getting what it's all about.

I get this.  I do.  It's pretty good stuff.

But I'm just not quite ready to abandon church...or, for that matter, organized religion.   There are a couple of reasons for this that go beyond me getting paid the big bucks to teach about him.

The first has to do with what happens if you take Sullivan's advice seriously.  Let's say you put your whole self in to the whole Jesus thing.  You start following Jesus.  You go where his teachings take you.  You walk the Way.   As you walk the way, you hear Jesus saying to you: Love your neighbor.  And, hey, love your enemy.

That means you have to look around a bit.  Following Jesus has implications for our life in relation to other human beings.  In fact, it has some pretty significant implications, ones that we won't notice if we're up on our mountaintop or down in our basement staring at our computer while we pour our Big Important Thoughts About Our Jesus into the interwebs.

To follow Jesus, we have to be aware of the other human beings around us.  More than that.  We have to love them.  Which means we have to listen to them.  To work with them.  To stand in caring and Christlike relationship with them.

Perhaps, I find myself wondering, church is that place where Jesus stops for a moment to let us catch our breath.  He wordlessly motions for us to look around.  Who do we see?  Who do we encounter as we follow, or discover standing right there at our shoulder?   Two or three, or twenty or thirty, or thousands, gathered together by the act of following.  That's church in a nutshell.

Sometimes Jesus seems a long way off, and as we walk towards his distant figure, we notice coming over a distant rise that there's another group, as small as ants, all moving together, coming from a different place but heading towards the same goal.   That's church too.

Then there are the times when the road is blocked, or we get tired, or we fall and our ankle hurts like a sonofa.  Those folks around us?  They pick us up, or offer to carry something, or bind up our ankle so we can walk on it and give us an arm to lean on.  That's church.

Sometimes, we encounter walls and cliffs that are simply too high to tackle on our own.  We figure it out, combine our efforts, work together, and help each other get over it.  That's organized religion.   Sometimes we encounter others on the way who are hungry, or who need clothing, or who've been hurt, and we figure out ways that we can together help them.  That's organized religion.

Or someone starts singing a song for the journey, and then we figure out the harmonies and the rhythms, and we start singing it all together because it sounds better together.  That's organized religion.

So I totally get Sullivan's point.  It's important for us not to get distracted in our walk.  But then again, organizing isn't a bad thing, not if you're doing it with that one goal in mind.  Sometimes it's easier to journey if we're journeying together.