Thoughts on Easter: “Spiritual but not Religious”

A large number of people label themselves as “spiritual but not religious.”   I can understand this viewpoint; for some it is because of bad experiences with a major world religion, such as Christianity, Judaism, or Islam.   For others, it is not necessarily because of a previous experience, but just that they are skeptical of the idea of “organized religion.”   Still, some may want to explore different religions before jumping into one; it is dipping one’s feet into the water before fully diving in.   In any case, and no matter what category a person falls under, the individuals who consider themselves “spiritual but not religious” recognize that there is something more to life than simply going after common and vain pursuits such as money and power.

However, the label “spiritual but not religious” is misleading; it implies that there is also a group of people who are “not spiritual and not religious.”   To be honest, I do not think it is even possible to be “not spiritual.”   The idea that one could not have a spiritual self at all, or that one could completely destroy or kill one’s spiritual self, does not make any sense.

The spirit is a characteristic of the physical body.   It’s like saying one is one; it simply is.   If you’ve read my previous post, “He’s living on the inside, roaring like a lion,” you’ll get a better idea of where I am coming from in stating this.   God created us; God breathed life into us, giving us a spirit.   In this life, the body and the spirit are inseparable.   They are intertwined into one existence – the human being.   What happens to the spirit after death, we do not know exactly (check out N.T. Wright’s Surprised by Hope); we have many ideas though.   Although, as a minister in Christianity, I believe that at the end of this sinful age there will be a resurrection of the dead and our spirit will return to our body through God’s power; we will live as one existence of the intertwined and inseparable physical and spiritual human being – the way God designed us to be – in a new eternal creation free from the bondage of death.   This is what is supported by Christian scripture and thousands of years of tradition.

There is no one who is “not spiritual.”   It is impossible.   We are all spiritual beings.   Granted, different people may deny or accept the reality of their spirituality on different levels, in effect, respectively, either suffocating or cultivating who they are.   But we are all spiritual on some level.   And as we become more in tune with ourselves, we realize that there is much more to life than simply the pursuit of vain items and materialism.   We begin to realize the importance of the connections that exist within this world.

Jesus summarized it as he echoed the Jewish Shema of Deuteronomy 6: “Jesus answered, ‘The first is, ‘Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one; you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength.’ The second is this, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no other commandment greater than these'” (Mark 12:29-31).

A few weeks ago in one of my classes at the U.S. Army Chaplain Basic Officer Leadership Course, one of my Chaplain instructors gave us his thoughts on a definition of spirituality: it is a person connecting with the four c’s – the creator, the community, the conscience, and the creation.   Even if it is at a very basic level, we are all making these connections; we are becoming more in tune to the bigger picture of life.   And as a Christian, I believe God made each one of us to have a role in this bigger picture; God created us to be people who are not selfish individuals, but selfless people who are always recognizing the connections we have.

Religion is a vital tool in developing this spirituality.   Through religion, we cultivate and grow these connections and relationships.   And perhaps most importantly, we learn to first develop our connection with God so that we can better develop our connections with the community, the conscience, and the creation.   On our own, it is impossible to cultivate these connections.   But through a connection with God, and with God working in us and changing our hearts, our other connections will grow into something we never believed was possible.

Christianity is based on the person of Jesus Christ; this religion is centered on Christ’s life, death, and resurrection.   Through Christ, we can experience the amazing love of God in his grace, forgiveness, and mercy, despite all that we have done wrong in life.   Through Christ, we can become connected with God.   And through that connection with God, we can learn to truly love one another.   We can begin to understand ourselves, how we fit into the bigger picture of life, and be free from vain pursuits.

During this Easter season, I pray that no matter where we are on our spiritual journeys, whether we are struggling to take the very first step or have already been traveling for a thousand miles, we will begin to see the ultimate form of spirituality as a relationship with Christ.   I pray that we will use the tools that thousands of years of the Christian tradition have given us to develop our connections with the creator, the community, the conscience, and the creation.   I pray that we will explore and reflect on different aspects of what it means to be a Christian in whatever context we find ourselves in today.   I pray that we will begin to learn how to worship God with all of our heart, soul, mind, and strength.   And I pray that we learn to love our neighbors in the same way that we love ourselves.

This week is Holy Week in western Christianity. Soon our brothers and sisters in eastern Christiany will also be celebrating these Holy days of the Christian calendar.  Palm Sunday, Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, and Easter Sunday – this week is the pinnacle event of Christianity.   The significance of these days for our lives is the culmination of what it means to know ourselves and recognize our spirituality.   The life, death, and resurrection of the Christ and the Messiah is the sum of what our connections to the creator, the community, the conscience, and the creation mean in each of our lives.

Happy Easter.   Christ has risen.   Let us celebrate.

Not even Batman wanted to kill people….

Do not worry! There are no spoilers for The Dark Knight Rises in this post. And while the most recent Christopher Nolan Batman movies are just that – movies (still with plenty of violence, although thankfully not as gratuitous as other movies) – perhaps Bruce Wayne and his alter-ego Batman are a better example of a Christian attitude toward violence than we may first realize. I am not claiming he is the best example, but he may be a more suited (ha…get it?) example than we might initially give him credit for. In the United States, we live in a culture and society that is seeking more entertainment through violence (perhaps that violence has flowed over into our attitudes, where it seems that most cannot even hold a respectful conversation anymore). Wondering if this is true? Look at how well the first movie of The Hunger Games did in theaters. The ironic thing is that I am not so sure most people understood one of the points of that story was that having an actual “Hunger Games” is not a good thing.

Concerning physical violence in our entertainment, it is a dangerous and slippery road. Do we have long before people within the United States try to sanction games similar to that of the “Hunger Games” or of Rome and the Coliseum, where gladiators fought to the death, and people were slaughtered for the entertainment of the citizens? These were not fictional people that died; actual human beings died, killed without mercy. Life disappeared from the earth and was destroyed for the amusement of the masses. One may say, “We recognize the sanctity of life, no matter who it is, so surely it wouldn’t happen.” But then the lines get blurred all too quickly when someday a producer, in the pursuit of making money after people have been desensitized to the fictional violence that is portrayed in the movies, comes up with the idea to have a “Survivor”-like game where convicted criminals must fight to their death. Will you then still say, “We recognize the sanctity of life, no matter who it is?” With the speed society is moving today, I am afraid that the day we return to the gladiatorial death games of the Roman Coliseum may be sooner than we think. I hope I am wrong in that assumption; I hope that day never returns.

In Batman Begins, when the criminal is presented to face his death at the hands of Bruce Wayne in the training center of the “League of Shadows,” which was perhaps, in the perspective of the world’s eye-for-an-eye lex talionis version of justice, rightly deserved, Bruce Wayne refused to kill the man. His words were, “I’m no executioner.” In The Dark Knight, not even Batman let the Joker fall to his death. In The Dark Knight Rises, not even Batman…. (That’s right, I said no spoilers.)

As representatives of the Church, we must learn to be sincere in saying, “We do not need to tolerate a culture of violence anymore, no matter where it is or what it looks like or whom the violence is directed towards. Instead we, as the Church, will take seriously Christ’s commandment to show love to all.”

The true test of love is whether we can have an attitude of love toward those we disagree with, do not like, or even those who are considered enemies. Yes, I just wrote the word enemies. In American culture, it is incredibly difficult to show Godly, life-giving and life-upholding love towards enemies; having an attitude of Christian love does not mean the destruction of their lives. Enough blood has been shed in this world through people’s selfish manipulations of truth. Life anywhere in the world is a gift of God, and one would think that a Christian would learn to respect that. Stanley Hauerwas, the Christian ethicist, said a statement along the lines of “There is nothing worth killing for, but there are things worth dying for.”

Christians are not called to represent the world’s justice of lex talionis, but we are called to represent the kingdom of God through the revelation of Jesus Christ. Primarily we are called to love our neighbors and enemies; that love includes demonstrating peace. However, that peace and love for an enemy may come at a price, and that price may be our own lives. It is a difficult call Christ has given us; this is perhaps the most singularly difficult and challenging aspect of the gospel – to be ready to give one’s life, even for an enemy, in the pursuit of demonstrating God’s love. We are called to show love, and even when death may be the imminent cost of that love, we are nevertheless still called to be faithful to God’s message. Selflessness, not selfishness, regarding our own lives, is something we must be prepared for. There is no room for unrepentant selfishness in the kingdom of God; let that be a gut-check for us all.

The good news is that even death is not the end nor in vain when it happens in love, but that there is a resurrection that will come in a newly restored creation; ultimately love will conquer evil, even though we may not see it today.

Many times it may appear that evil does conquer love; remember, God calls us to be faithful to the message of love for all, no matter what the circumstances are. I urge you – do not give up hope. However, I do want to share one instance where we have seen the results of love conquering evil, although that love came at the cost of death. Many of you may already be familiar with this true story; I highly recommend reading Through Gates of Splendor by Elisabeth Elliot and End of the Spear by Steve Saint.

In 1955, five missionaries sought to bring the word of God to a notoriously violent indigenous tribe in the Amazon. In fact, according to the accounts of many of the indigenous people themselves, this group was on the verge of killing themselves into extinction. Nate Saint, Roger Youderian, Ed McCully, Pete Fleming, and Jim Elliot finally made contact with this group; in January 1956, all five of these men were killed by the people they sought to demonstrate love to. But even with a rifle in the missionaries’ airplane to use for food, it was never used for self-defense. These men had one goal – to demonstrate Christ’s love. They had no desire to kill anyone; the cost was their lives. Their act was selfless; they were faithful to God’s message of love to the very end.

Yet despite the evil that took place, love overcame. Because of their family’s strong love, a love which was faithful to Christ’s call to love even an enemy, their families were able to forgive the people who had killed these five men. They ended up fulfilling Nate’s, Roger’s, Ed’s, Pete’s, and Jim’s call to minister to this group, living with the Auca tribe, and changing their attitudes from hate, violence, and vengeance, to Godly love. Lives were changed and evil was overcome by holy love. There was no eye-for-an-eye lex talionis justice here, only mercy, forgiveness, and love. Love prevailed; and in the face of evil and violence, the only thing that will ever overcome these horrors and change lives is love.

Christ died for those who sinned against God; Christ even died for his enemies, the people sinning against him. To love someone, even an enemy, to the point of death – is that not the same love that Christ asks of us in John 15:12: This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you? Forget Bruce Wayne and Batman for a moment, let us look to Christ as our model! So I ask us, as Christians in the United States, what has happened to that most basic call to love one another, to love our enemies and the people we disagree with? Please prove me wrong that it has not entirely disappeared.

Perhaps it is not physical violence, but maybe it is an attitude of violence and a language of hate that is present in our lives. In response to the recent comments made by the head of Chick-Fil-A, there has been ugly hate speech spewed out by both sides, whether one agrees or disagrees with what the man said regarding marriage. Where is, at a minimum, the attitude of loving conversation in our society? Whether we agree or disagree with someone, does not the least person simply deserve to be treated with love, whether in your eyes that person happens to be the head of Chick-Fil-A or the openly gay man or woman down the street?

Attitudes of anger, hate, and violence are horribly rampant in Congress and politics today; where is the attitude of loving conversation? Have we forgotten how to show a simple love and respect to someone, whether we agree with someone’s politics or not?

Violence, whether it is in our actions, our words, or our attitudes, is not the way of Christ; love is the way of Christ. Destruction of life and violent attitudes are not things we should simply accept; if our on-screen, fictional hero of Batman did not even want to kill people, why are we so quick to condone the destruction of life, whether in entertainment or in reality, and even if that violence may simply be the hate and anger that seems to be running so unbridled through society today?

Instead, be the Church of love that God has called us to be.

the degradation of the term “adventure”

These days people are labeling anything and everything as an “adventure.” I know some people who would term a trip to the local grocery store, coffee shop, or city park as an “adventure.” Quite honestly, it’s pathetic. One might be able to get away with calling trips like these adventures only after the fact, and only if something unexplained, unexpected, and totally awe-inspiring occurred somewhere in the timeline of the trip.

In a fast-paced and over-stimulated world, where nearly every minute of our days are planned and there is not much room for error, we have lost much of any sense of adventure. Moreover, we make contingency plans for every possibility. Finally, with the rapid advancement and proliferation of technology, there seems to be less that can go wrong each day. Perhaps this is the reason we have an over-zealous thirst for labeling mundane everyday activities as adventurous.

I recently watched Stephen Auerbach’s documentary “Bicycle Dreams” about the 2005 Race Across America, one of the most difficult races in the world. One of the cyclists, Chris MacDonald, discusses how people describe a sense of something missing in their lives, yet they do not know what it is that is missing. An element of the unknown is a critical component of adventure. This may be one reason why people enter events like the Race Across America. Whether I realize it or not, it is probably one of the reasons I enter endurance paddling races such as the Missouri River 340. We are searching for the opportunity and courage to face an unknown that has been replaced by the comfort, stability, and safety of a posh American lifestyle.

As a result of our safe and stable lives, it is increasingly hard to find an endeavor that is definitively an adventure. As Scott and Shackleton planned their Antarctic expeditions over a century ago, there was certainly a greater possibility and fear of the unknown than there might be on similar expeditions today. While anyone going on any type of trip has an obligation to do their best to mitigate the risks, there are some endeavors where a great unknown is an unavoidable fact hovering above them, as in the case of a soldier deploying to a foreign country. When we have the courage to leave the safety and comfort of our personal worlds behind, it is at that point when we can truly begin to call something an adventure.

Perhaps the greatest adventure any of us can go on, in the truest sense of the word, is to completely devote our lives to God the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. The Old and New Testaments are filled with people who have ventured out from the safety of their personal worlds out of obedience to God. Through courage and faith in God, David not only conquered the fear of physical danger but also the fear of the unknown. In the New Testament, in addition to being shipwrecked and being bitten by a venomous snake, Paul faced persecution continuously for his belief in Christ. When we make a commitment to following God, the unexplained, unexpected, and totally awe-inspiring are guaranteed to happen.

There is certainly an element of the unknown when we devote our lives to Christ. We may not exactly know the direction of our lives all of the time. We may be sent as missionaries to foreign lands. We may even face the physical peril of persecution and poverty. But despite everything that may challenge our commitment to Christ, God does give at least one comfort in the adventure of a true Christian life: we can take refuge in the faith and knowledge of God. We have the knowledge that in the end, the unknown of this adventure will not be for nothing, but rather it will be for the hope, love, and salvation of Christ. Until then, it is our responsibility to live as an example of Christ to a world that is searching and struggling through their own elements of the unknown.