Someone asked me on New Year’s Eve, when realizing I was a pastor, what difference religion really makes. “That’s a big question for my off hours,” I laughed, but not answering might have been less than pastoral! So I responded, “I can think of two ways of answering that — on the macro level or personally.”
Broadly — and with full acknowledgement of harm done in the name of religion and the specific prejudices it has bequeathed cultures it has influenced — one might wonder what our world would be like without the health care and education and social services that are in the fabric of modern life? They all find much of their original impulse and development from religious teaching, spiritual communities and faithful service.
But on a more individual level, I explained, religion helps me perceive more than I might otherwise recognize. Hebrews puts it this way: “Faith is the confidence that what we hope for will actually happen; it gives us assurance about things we cannot see.”
Faith challenges and warns that there’s more than meets they eye. It’s like Dr. Seuss’ “Horton Hears A Who” and its moral: “even though you can’t see or hear them at all, a person’s a person, no matter how small.” What and who we dismiss as hardly being… or not mattering at all, religion insists, are intricately part of the whole… and holy.
There are realities beyond what we can touch, talk about or grasp. Religion is in this sense “disassociative” — it calls us to loosen up our hold on the smaller and most obvious reality right before us so we might reach for something bigger. It calls us to an eye-opening and heart-changing humility in order to face that which is greater than ourselves.
We respond religiously by acknowledging there’s more than the material world. More than we can sense or understand. Mystery. Wonder. So much more than we can control (no matter how much we want to or try).
And with the eyes (and heart and mind) of faith, suddenly the whole world around us becomes alive in new ways. What seemed to be inanimate participates. There’s all this energy in the in-between spaces, the relationships between things and people are actually buzzing with power. Everyone has more going on than others recognize, often more than they themselves can understand, or even name.
Religion helps us believe in or at least begin to reference this “more.” Or that’s the hope. If it doesn’t always work for you, try these sorts of tacks:
~ Slow down. Breath. Pause. Be still. Look around at where you are. You may have created some of your surroundings, but in the bigger scheme, you are only responsible for the smallest fraction of your world.
~ Rest. Stop. Renew. Everyone needs fallow periods. Make sabbath part of your routine. For our spinning planet, it happens daily. In faith, weekly. In nature (or our earth’s orbiting around the sun), seasonally. Only when we cease from our incessant doing — and from mistaking productivity as the price of admission for being — do we begin to notice what we otherwise speed by (and ourselves).
~ Close your eyes to begin to see sometimes. We were reminded at both the Christmas and New Year’s Eve services, darkness is not the enemy. It’s actually as needed as light. And it can be pregnant with promise. Only in darkness can you perceive certain things, for example the more subtle lights or the still small sounds.
And there are also the shadows. We all have them. Rather than trying to ignore or run from them, explore them, even give thanks for them. They haunt us sometimes, but they are also the shape we are in and the passing impressions we give off.
~ Run off on an errand that’s a little crazy. The Magi headed to distant land following a star and searching for a baby who was born a King. And then promptly went home, never to be heard from again? Do something each day that doesn’t quite make sense. The White Queen in “Alice in Wonderland” advises we practice believing as many as six impossible things each day before breakfast. Seek surprises. Allow your self to be surprised. Be a surprise.
~ Live your life as a story someone else is writing. You’re not its author. Ok, you might be the major character, and there’s some agency in that. But there are so many other people involved in how it plays out. And forces you can’t see. Where will it lead you? How will it turn out? Physical death will inevitably be a chapter. There may be some spiritual death in those pages too. But what comes before all that? And will that be the end of the tale?
~ Move through your days and your years with your senses — most important of all your heart — open. Along the way, keep looking for out of the way places. Things tucked away in corners, almost lost in the shadows. Notice overlooked people. Imagine you can see microscopically. Glimpse a bigger view than is possible.
And as Howard Thurman counseled, “Don’t ask what the world needs. Ask what makes you come alive, and go do it. Because what the world needs is people who have come alive.”
Happy New Year, church. See you this Sunday…