“Do I stay Christian?” This is the title of author Brian McClaren’s new book, a “guide for the doubters, the disappointed, and the disillusioned.” The first ten chapters talk about why you wouldn’t want to stay Christian in this day and age. Among the chapter headings (paraphrased):
Because Christianity has been mean to its Mother (the anti-semitism in Christian history)
Because of Christianity’s high global death toll (the Crusades and Colonialism)
Because of Christianity’s real master (Money)
Because of in-fighting (Disputes between Christians)
Because Christianity is a Sinking Shrinking Ship of Wrinkling People
The next ten chapters argue why it might just be worth it to stick it out:
Because leaving defiantly or staying compliantly aren’t your only options.
Because Christianity is changing and it would be a shame to leave a religion in its infancy.
Because of our legendary founder.
Because we’re human.
And, this one, my favourite: “to free God.”
Today, the Feast of the Presentation of our Lord, marks 10 years of ordained ministry for me. 10 years ago on this day, I was ordained a deacon (a year later, a priest). Each one of the ten chapter headings I’ve just read out to you from Brian McClaren’s book could very well describe my first ten years of ministry. I won’t tell you which one I’m currently in. Okay, I will tell you. You’ll be glad to hear it isn’t the Sinking Shrinking Ship of Wrinkling People. After ten years of ordained ministry, I feel like I’m in the “to free God” phase of Staying Christian.
For me, and maybe for you, too, there are certain images or names for God that have been profoundly unhelpful, maybe even destructive, in your spiritual journey or the spiritual journey of the ones you love. McClaren talks about “the slaveholder’s God, the M[ake] A[merica] G[reat] A[gain] . . . God . . . the . . . get-rich-quick God, the . . . easy-answer God, the . . . God who is really upset about abortion but doesn’t give a [hoot] about racism, environmental plunder, or authoritarianism.”
How do we free God from these things?
McClaren suggests two things. First, to start with a simple prayer from Meister Eckhart. It goes, “God, rid me of God.”
Provocative, eh? It’s a prayer “to find new names, metaphors, frameworks, languages, and spiritual practices that will help us experience the God who rids us of the God we need to be rid of.” This week in Bible study, we were imagining what it would’ve been like for Joseph to have to go out and get a pair of turtledoves to offer at the temple on the day of Jesus’ presentation. And, as we were imagining Joseph going to the market to pick up these pigeons, really, we wondered if the shopkeeper might have asked Joseph to describe his boy Jesus, to tell him a little bit about this child that was being dedicated. And, just as we were imagining how Joseph might have described Jesus, so also we asked ourselves how we might describe Jesus, if someone were to ask us, recalling Jesus’ famous question to Peter in the Bible, when he says to him, “And you, Peter, who do you say that I am?”
“God, rid me of God.” I wonder what images of God you long to part with and who you would say Jesus is today?
McClaren also suggests addressing God not as he, or she, or even they, but as “You,” “dar[ing] to believe there is a You to address in the universe, a Presence, a Love that loves through all loves, a radiant and holy mystery, the Spirit of life and creativity, the Wisdom woven into the pattern of the universe, the ‘still, small voice’ that beckons creation, including [you and me] towards love and maturity.”
And, to see that You “shining through in the face of Jesus.”
To say a prayer in our own hearts “to free God” is one thing—a powerful thing. To live out that prayer is another matter entirely. How do we free God not just in word, but also in deed?
After ten years of ordained ministry, I can honestly say that the answer to that question is for me no easier and no more difficult than, “Keep coming to church.” Keep coming to church so that you can be of better service in the world.
Part of it is the somewhat obvious realisation that if I want there to be a church in the future then I need to show up at it. (That’s what I tell myself every Monday morning when my alarm goes off at the ungodly hour of 6 am and I have to get up for my exercise class. I say to myself, “Do I want there to be a spin class at the Delbrook Rec Centre in the future? Yes, yes I do, because cycling helps my back and when my back hurts less I’m less grumpy and when I’m less grumpy, what do you know, the people around me are less grumpy! And then I drag myself out of bed).
When I say it all comes down to “keep coming to church” what I mean is that what we do in church actually changes me. Playing dress up every Sunday in colours that mark the changing seasons of the church calendar, this helps me to move through the seasons of life without getting stuck in those particularly difficult ones where I wonder if the hard times will ever be over. Praying the Psalms every Sunday, saying the bold and unbolded words in the bulletin back and forth, back and forth, sharing with one another a sign of God’s peace, all of these things help me to remember not just in my head but in the very fibre of my being that my wounds are not mine alone to bear, that my joy is held by others, that there is a You and a you who is witnessing this thing called, “Life.”
“Ritual is God’s gift to humanity,” anthropologist Paula Pryce once said. So, thank you, all of you, for coming to church so that there could be a church of which I’ve had the privilege of serving for one whole glorious decade. Here’s to another. Amen.
McLaren, Brian D. Do I Stay Christian? St. Martin’s Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.