I’m finally ready to finish this…
Last week, I was chatting with a student about deep spiritual things. The things we were talking about, in my opinion, were not necessarily “deep” by definition, but pointed to a realm of spiritual curiosity that, sadly, few people – and even fewer Christians, willfully enter.
In my last two posts, I realize that, despite my best efforts, I may have come across as one of the following: pompous, pious, elitist, judgmental or overly cerebral. Obviously, I do not mean for these posts to be taken in any of these ways, nor am I proposing that just because I am one of the few who enter the “realm of spiritual curiosity” as I have mentioned means that I am in some way or another a better Christian or a more grounded and realistic religious man. Far from the truth. There are days, in this journey, in which I feel more lost than I have ever been – in which I wonder if maybe I didn’t veer off the correct course back in my early twenties and am actually hiking on some version of the broad road rather than the narrow.
The fact is, I spent twenty years of my life scraping and striving to be a “better” Christian. It wasn’t until a few years ago that I realized that there is no such thing. There are Christians and there are non-Christians. There are no good Christians and bad Christians no matter how many people choose to turn the word “Christian” exclusively into an adjective. In reality, there are good people and bad people. There are disciplined people and confused people. There are joyful people and angry people. In each category, you will find Christians. Of such, oddly enough, is the kingdom of God.
As I was talking to this student, I was saying essentially the same thing. I was trying to explain that becoming a Christian is not about seeking to fit into a particular mold. If anything, salvation in Christ is about the realization that there is no set mold. Rather, there is freedom. Why else would there be countless denominations from which to choose (all full of the good, bad, disciplined, confused, joyful, angry, etc.)? As the conversation turned to the dilemma of navigating a plethora of denominational choices – of philosophy and polity and practice – I tried my best to explain my view of denominationalism, and, to a greater extent, religious identity. What I have come up with is a metaphor that borders on the ridiculous, but I ask that you graciously bear with me.
I explained to this student that, in my opinion, denominations are like clothing. As far as my particular journey of faith is concerned, the way I have dressed throughout my life is quite similar to the way I have interacted with various denominations and their doctrines. For instance, when I was a little baby, I didn’t wear a lot of clothes, but once I did, it was not I that chose this apparel, but my parents. Equally, it was not I that chose to be christened in a Methodist church, but my parents. The same goes for my childhood in a Southern Baptist church. My parents made the call, so I wore what I was given to wear and I accompanied them to the churches they chose to attend.
Eventually, however, I became more concerned about my appearance, because, socially speaking, it was no longer my parents’ responsibility, but my own.Interestingly enough, around the same time clothes became important, so did my faith. Luckily for me, I had parents willing to buy me most of the threads I selected, and I had a genuine, intentional youth minister who encouraged me to seek truth and follow Christ.
For the majority of my adolescence and a considerable portion of my twenties, I dressed the way I saw others dress. I strived to remain in fashion. I think many will agree that this is stressful. But I did everything I could to look as close to the norm as possible, lest I be shunned as a spazz, dork, nerd (or some other derisive 90′s slang). I still remember begging my mother to buy me a pair of Girbaud jeans in eighth grade so that I seemingly wouldn’t be the only one without. Subsequently, at the eighth grade dance, I wasn’t by myself the entire night. I’m not sure if it was the jeans that got me on the dance floor, but I know it wasn’t my self-confidence either.
Ultimately, some of us reach a point where we quit trying to impress with our clothing. That’s why movies like The Devil Wears Prada and Mean Girls fill me with anxiety. There but for the grace of God… In my case, by the time I reached college, I was still interested in looking fashionable, but I also became concerned with being comfortable. I wore sandals when I felt like wearing sandals, plain T-shirts when it worked for me, and I chose jeans that fit well over those that sported an impressive brand stitch. As time passed, comfortability won out over fashion. I even started copping an attitude in department stores (“Thirty-five bucks for a pair of pants!”). Today, if I succeed in being fashionable, it is only after I have ensured that I’m comfortable. That what I’m wearing fits and fits well.
I told my student that the same has been true of my journey of faith, especially in regards to denominations, or at least the particular theological theories and worship practices inherent in many of them. In my late teens and early twenties, I was concerned with matching the emotional and spiritual intensity of the people around me. So I listened to the same praise music, raised my hands like the rest of them and considered secular culture the way most of them considered it. Basically, I tried to force a “look” that simply was not me. And I was never comfortable. I was always worried it wasn’t enough. I could not shake the concern that those around me, if they really took a good look, would realize that my Girbaud’s were bought at Service Merchandise, and it was the only pair I owned. Sooner or later, I would wear them out.
I have stated that the third aspect that drew me to things like the liturgical church, ritual, and contemplative prayer (and other things like Anglicanism, solemn worship, monastic principles and The Book of Common Prayer) was religious symbolism. Truthfully, I don’t see the term to be as intellectual as it may sound. I could write a whole new series of blog posts on the various symbolic elements in many of these things, from the progression of the worship service, to the Eucharist, to chiming the hours of prayer, to chanting canticles, to the Christian calendar, to icons and candles and incense. The list goes on and on. But, in general, religious symbolism simply means that everything points to the reality of God. Everything. For me, the emotional impact of a worship service is not found in a sudden, passionate key change in “Shout to the Lord” or “The Stand,” but in a long string of words and images and sounds that consistently direct my attention back to God. Religious symbolism is the rituals, the archetypes and the writings that work together as one to bring me into full communion with God – a communion of the heart, soul, strength and mind.
Fragmented worship makes me uneasy. A worship service that is segmented (first, we’ll have our worship set, and then we’ll do announcements, and then we’ll sing some more songs, and then we’ll pray, and then we’ll sing one more song, and then we’ll have someone come and bring a message, and then we’ll do one more set of songs, and maybe have an altar call if the Spirit is moving) is typically a worship service that is not working together but is merely a buffet of different forms of expression. In seminary, my mentoring pastor once told me that planning a worship service is not unlike writing a short story or composing a poem. Every image, every word, matters. As a pastor or worship leader, it is imperative that you carefully lead the congregation through the whole of it, and when you come to the end, they have received a glimpse into something much deeper, much fuller, than anything they experience in their day-to-day lives.
The clothes I wear today are ones that make me comfortable. They do not constrict. They do not distract. And, perhaps most importantly, they do not define me. At most, they can offer pieces of evidence regarding the person I am inside. This is even more true of the specific worship practices and doctrines to which I hold. I am no more an Anglican convert than I am an ordained Baptist minister, no more a contemplative or a new monastic than I am a Christian hipster. What is true is that I am a seeker of God and a follower of Jesus. Any doctrinal, denominational, theological philosophical, political or ideological stigma placed upon that is as trivial and vain as the clothes on my back.
My journey lately is about being honest when honesty has become unpopular. It is about being genuine when genuineness can no longer be clearly identified. It is about being reflective when the majority of Christians, whether consciously or unconsciously, spurn incisive examination of their own faith. It is about learning what it really means to love God with all of my heart, soul, strength and mind. Why the liturgical Church? Why ritual? Why contemplative prayer? It has nothing to do with being in or out of fashion.
It’s because they fit me, and fit me well.