Leaving Christianity: An Exit Interview

interviewTypically, when someone leaves a large corporation they are given a form or interview to explain why they chose to go somewhere else. Corporate big-wigs long ago realized that people staying with the company aren’t as likely to be open about the reality of what’s happening. The view from someone who no longer has a reason to hide their feelings is valuable to help those who remain. In a way, it is a last gift of the departing to the co-workers staying on the job. I hope my Christian friends see the heart I have for them and their road, even as I leave with some clear observations.

I toyed with this post for months – because I didn’t feel like I had anything to say anyone would care about and it can be seen as a rant. Okay, some of it is a rant. Pretty much, the response of Christian leaders and friends once you turn in your gold cross lapel pin is – “well, that’s just sour grapes” or “that’s your experience – OUR church isn’t like that.” So, why bother? Besides, I was taught it is rude to point out what you don’t like at a buffet (and Christianity is definitely a buffet) – just take what you want and sit down.

I decided to write after some good and heart-felt conversations with friends after I announced I was taking refuge (formally declaring myself a Buddhist) a few weeks ago. Many have suggested it was the Christian wailing and gnashing of teeth over gay marriage, or that vomit-inducing fake post about the red on the Confederate flag being the “blood of Christ” (REALLY?!), or just a bad experience with a church here in Virginia. None of that is true (in fact, the last Christian church I was in – The Gayton Kirk – was probably the best church I could have ever been in – except, I was already walking away from Christianity by the time I got there.). I’d been studying dharma, meditating and journeying for a few years now. It wasn’t a new decision – or even really a decision. I can’t name the day I said, “I’m not a Christian anymore.” I just looked around and began to slowly notice, I was somewhere else. But, there were things that cut the brush and made a path that led away more clear. This post is about those things.

In the end – it wasn’t the bigotry, the battles or the building fund that cut the trail leading me to a new place. It was all the fear.  So – the Exit Interview. It’s not about “You” – the individual Christian, or “You” a certain church, or “You” a certain denomination, political bend (I find very little difference between the vocal/rigid conservative right and the silent/ineffective liberal left), or specific type of belief.. It’s “You” – Christianity – the whole uniquely American/Western shebang. It’s not personal – and yet, it is.

You are afraid to follow Christ.

As I’ve told many in the last few weeks, there is a person that Jesus taught people to be – and I want to be that person. But Christianity has failed to follow those instructions and I am not able to become or awaken to that person within the present environment. I have been very clear, though. I did not leave because Christianity was failing me. I left because I was failing to be me within it.

Western Christianity seems to have given up following the words and teachings of Jesus and swapped it out for the extreme worship and adoration of him. Whether he is on the cover of Time, headlining a movie, or appearing the chorus of country song – Jesus is an object of love and pure devotion.

Jesus cover

The problem is, that wasn’t why he came. While we’ve been busy making him some sort of First Century rock star – the poor have been hungry, the prisoners abused, the sick denied medical insurance, and Samaritans of all kinds left on the side of the road to die. Following Jesus is different than worshiping him. It’s work, and it sometimes means being mobile, generous and uncomfortable. It means:

  • Instead of crying tears at a revival because we are overcome by His glory – we are crying tears in the street because we mourn the dead killed because of their race, their social status or their mental health.
  • Instead of moralizing and complaining about the working single mother who gets $76 a month per kid to feed them, it means opening your wallet and giving her $24 more so she has $100 – and maybe ensuring she gets some health care and the right to birth control, too. (“If someone makes you walk with him one mile – walk with him two”).
  • Instead of donating to wealthy politicians (of either party) and filling church parking lots with signs and bumper stickers for the best candidate to create economic growth on the backs of the impoverished or at the expense of the earth – it means calling out the rich and being a voice for equality, dignity, and loving action on behalf of leaders and the community.
  • It means stop expecting other people to “deserve” things/love/respect – feed them anyway.

Let’s face it – we all love John the Baptist for calling out the powerful on hypocrisy in the streets and paying with his head – but how many of us are really willing to be him? Which leads me to:

 You are afraid to be Different

The bible tells us over and over that Christians are not supposed to be like the rest of the world. We are told to be “Strangers in a strange land” – “In the world but not of the world” – “Give Caesar his and Give God his.” But that isn’t how we see it in these days. Instead of living our beliefs even if they don’t fit the world – Christianity has decided to change to world to fit its beliefs. The fake “persecution complex” had gotten out of hand. A store saying “Happy Holidays” isn’t hurting you and the manager isn’t going to storm into your house and say “Kiss this Pagan Yule Log or you can’t have 30% off!” If other people in the world have “holidays” and you have Christmas – freaking have Christmas! Reason your season until your manger overflows with kneeling sheep and really clean shepherds. But don’t try to force the whole country to do it with you. Christianity was designed to be a city on a hill – a light – not a police force.

fight for fiath

That goes for marriage, school prayer and every other Christian trope currently trying to be legislated into law. Your kids can’t lead the math class in a prayer to Jesus? So what! Is school the only place your kid can pray? Give your kids a home filled with prayer, and a life filled with actions of goodness and heart. It’s not the job of schools to accommodate YOU. It’s your job to keep your faith even when others don’t. Jesus talked about praying in a closet – not at a chalkboard. There are places all over the world where Christians are murdered. That’s persecution. The inability to shop at Penny’s cause they ran an ad with a gay couple is not.

We weren’t designed to be a “Christian nation,” we aren’t one, and we aren’t going to be one. Christianity should be something you choose because you want to be a Christian, not because the majority population pressures you into it or makes it illegal for you to act in ways that “aren’t biblical” (like any two Christians can even agree on what that is).  Don’t try to make the world a nice place for your ideas. Keep them, walk them, and strive for them in a world where you may be different from others – because that is the point! (note: People in the Judeo part of the Judeo-Christian tradition have lived this way forever – and still they thrive.).

You are afraid of your own God.

If Pentecost were to happen in most Christian churches today, the Holy Spirit would have to try to time it between Upward Basketball and the taize worship service, get a permit from the Buildings and Grounds committee, and submit a plan for who would clean up the sanctuary when it was over. Church’s cling to order as a form of oxygen, instead of having a system that is strong enough to hold and flexible enough to withstand the spontaneity and creativity of a powerful God. Christianity is shackled by the ego, vision, budget, and polity of leaders and lay people rather than being freed by the willingness to follow what Jesus said.

You’re afraid God will let the church die. I won’t even start on the number of blogs and church seminars hysterical about the death, change, challenge of the modern church. Death is change. The church’s old model – huge buildings, full time pastoral staff who makes a living wage just from ministry, and programs, programs, programs simply isn’t working any more. Yet – with scholars in almost every denomination heralding this truth as the dawn of a new form of Christianity – lighter, relational, mobile and powerful in action and message – the mainline church is still functioning with 16 committees (for a 200 active member congregation) and claiming to be on the fringe because of that coffee shop/bar/mall/bookstore worship it now offers. Here’s the thing: Holding the same old bible study with the same old ideas in Starbucks isn’t innovation – it’s relocation.

starbucks

The “wrath of God” has become a frequent Christian chorus. Gay marriage? “Let us pray this country doesn’t suffer the wrath of God.” Tornado? “God is letting us know God is unhappy with..,” Some Hobby Lobby worker needs birth control to regulate her hormones, “That will make God unhappy.” This “fear of the Lord” has nothing to do with the respect the Bible commands. I have respect for a lot of people, but I’m not afraid they will slap me with a plague, tornado or fire roasted chili just for doing something uniquely human. I am starting to think forgiveness plays such a key role in Christianity because there’s so much fear of God that we have to keep being assured we’re not heading for a smack-down. The belief in dualism – that we are somehow separate from God and require blood, prayer and methods to be acceptable or embraced is not something I can support.

A few years ago I left the Christian church and began a journey of meditation and study with a focus on rest, mental health, creativity and freedom from fear. I walked until I was in a field that expressed compassion, embraced life and death without fear, where mistakes happen and it’s okay, where reality is the focus, and where those things the words of Jesus taught me were actually being put into personal practice – kindness, mourning, joy, generosity, effort and embracing the basic goodness in myself and others. When I heard my meditation teacher say, “Buddhism is the path of being human.” I knew the name of the road I was on.

This wasn’t easy. It can be hard, and sometimes heartbreaking, to strip off long-held ideas and habits. I have grieved certain changes, and celebrated much baggage released. I cherish the friends I’ve made, the memories I’ve decided to keep, and the things I learned.

There is a story in the bible of the Magi who find the baby Jesus and are supposed to go tell Herod where he is. Realizing that funny thing they smelled on Herod was the stench of his fear, they were warned in a dream to go home by another way.   That’s what I’m doing. So pray for me, and I will send my love to you. Let’s be different, together.

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Eat the Blame: A Zen Invitation to Forward Motion

What’s the number one rule of the internet? Don’t read the comments. What’s the number one truth of the internet? You read the comments, didn’t you? The comment section is the thorn in the rose of every thought provoking article, news story, or cat picture the 24 entertainment cycle can throw at us. And yet, we always want to know what people are saying. At least – until we see it. Then we are trapped with all that jumble of bad spelling, poor grammar, anonymous “studies,” misapplied scripture and the blame. Oh, the blame.

"Oh, the blame, Blame, BLAME..." (c) 1966, MGM Television.

“Oh, the blame, Blame, BLAME…”
(c) 1966, MGM Television.

They blame the victim.

They blame the system.

They blame the “ism”

Or the political schism…

(Apologies to Dr. Seuss – I start rhyming like this every Christmas…)

Our world is filled with people who know exactly who is to blame for nearly everything. Blame is so much a part of our DNA that it sheds from us like skin cells, dropping from our mouths into the environment as so much judgmental dust. Before we polish our coffee table and pretend we don’t know what’s happening, think of the many times you’ve said, heard, or come across these questions?

  1. What was she wearing the night she was assaulted? Why was she in his apartment?
  2. Why was he jogging at 11:00 PM? Doesn’t he know he could be robbed?
  3. If they can’t afford three kids, why did they have them?
  4. Why don’t they get a job?
  5. Why didn’t he just do what the cop said, even if it violates his rights?
  6. If she didn’t want diabetes, why did she eat like that?

And so on…

Take a handful. There's enough for everyone.

Take a handful. There’s enough for everyone.

Blaming is a national pastime. But what good does it do? Little. Blame makes the victims of violence hide their experience and allows perpetrators to go free.  Blame adds a pile of shame on top of every situation, and doesn’t help anyone become stronger, wiser, better or happier. Blame doesn’t take us forward. Blame doesn’t offer us an opportunity to change.

Blame makes us feel superior, smarter and eases our fears about a world that is unpredictable, violent and out of our control. Instead of admitting there is a rape culture on many college campuses– we say, “Don’t drink and don’t wear tight clothes,” because those things we can control. Instead of looking with compassion at someone who is suffering from obesity, recognizing that most of us also have a troubled relationship with food, it makes us feel powerful to add shame/blame to the challenges they face. Instead of admitting our country has a pattern of judicial and institutional racism that we don’t know how to change (without going through the pain of real change), we blame the victim again and again. Blame is our protection plan, practiced so often it has become a cultural reflex.

Make no mistake – we blame because it makes us feel better. But – it doesn’t make us better. It just keeps us spinning bitterly in place.

How can we stop this reflex? Eat the blame.

Mmm..blame...now with flakier crust.

Mmm..blame…now with flakier crust.

There is a Zen koan that gives us a map to healthier way of living. It’s called (in English) “Eating the Blame.”

Circumstances arose one day which delayed preparation of the dinner of a Soto Zen master, Fugai, and his followers. Quickly the cook went to the garden with his curved knife and cut off the tops of green vegetables, chopped them together and made soup, unaware that in his haste he had included a part of a snake in the vegetables.

The followers of Fugai thought they never tasted such good soup. But when the master himself found the snake’s head in his bowl, he summoned the cook. “What is this?” he demanded, holding up the head of the snake.

“Oh, thank you, master,” replied the cook, taking the morsel and eating it quickly.

 What’s going on here?

The cook has made a terrible error. The monks are strict vegetarians. To have eaten a snake in their soup would have violated their vows and brought shame to them.

The cook had a number of choices when the head appeared in the Master’s bowl. He could have:

  • Blamed the Master for forcing the cook to work too quickly.
  • Blamed the gardener for allowing snakes to infest the garden.
  • Blamed the followers for breaking their own vows – they liked the soup and didn’t question.
  • Become the victim, apologizing profusely and drawing attention to the crisis.
  • Instead, he simply ate the mistake that was pointed out to him and went on.

The cook’s actions do a number of good things.

  1. It shows his compassion for the monks by not wanting to draw attention to the misstep.
  2. He eats snake too – becoming one of them – so no one is better than anyone else.
  3. He takes responsibility for his mistake in eating it himself.
  4. He allows the Master to move forward with polite gratitude.

Those are the very things we can do to stop the blame cycle infesting our culture. When you see a news story – try some of the following responses.

  1. Approach the situation with compassion for everyone involved. Instead of jumping to the “what x did wrong” scenario, instead think of how they must feel, what they’ve been through, and soften your heart.
  1. Walk in their shoes. You don’t have to become a victim or perpetrator  – but you can understand a time when you’ve been lonely, or hungry or made the wrong choice, or found yourself in a bad situation of your own making or someone else’s. Instead of being quick to judge “the other” be willing to walk beside them.
  1. Look into your own heart and take responsibility for your feelings. Often the situations that make us the most angry or judgmental are the ones that touch a part of our past or our heart that we haven’t resolved yet. Before you dump your mistakes onto another situation, own them and accept them. Awaken.
  1. Allow the situation to move forward. Give hope, and have gratitude.

If someone is in the wrong, there will be a world of people ready to make that known. Be one of the people who gives them to power to change, to overcome, and to continue to a brighter day.


We’re all on a Journey, but there is no Path

You’re on it. I’m on it. We are all on it. And we all scream for ice cream. The journey of life – that walk/run/crawl through the days that make up our time on earth – is a trip each and every one of us will take. Few journeys go in a straight line and most of us encounter the valleys and challenges that make stories like Lord of the Rings, Star Wars, and Harry Potter touch us at a soul level.

harry potter

This is how I look when I’ve been waiting for a parking space and a new car shows up threatening to take it. My life is a hero’s journey.
(c) Warner Bros.

Whether we are encountering a hero’s journey to make our dreams come true or just struggling to keep enough food in the fridge until payday, we are all trying to get somewhere. This archetype is so deeply ingrained in our communal and personal psyche we apply it to our spiritual nature and that’s when many make a mistake.  We begin to believe we are on a path to God.

 We are all mindful of those rigid, annoying folks who believe their “path to God” is the ONLY path to God. Just as frustrating to me are those folks who, in trying to be open minded, willfully insist “there are many paths to God.”  While it is nice for people to affirm the faith ideas of others as valid and uplifting, it still offers a misdirected solution.

It doesn’t matter if your view of God is Jehovah – the Judeo-Christian God, the Buddha nature, the AA “Higher Power” or as Julia Cameron aptly describes it – the search for “Good-Orderly-Direction” the belief that your practice of faith, grace or ritual is taking you toward God could be holding you back from some of the very joy you seek.

I would like you to try, just for a moment, to think differently. If you are not completely satisfied – your path to God will be returned to you immediately. I won’t even make you wait the 30 day trial period.  But for a second, try this out.

There is no path to God.

Wiat there's more

 

 

 

 

 

If you are willing to imagine that thought – I’ll throw in the rest for free.

There is no path to God because God is already with you.

When we project that there is a path leading to God, we place God somewhere we are not. We begin to think of God as “away” and we must do something  – live according to the rules, pray every day, meditate to enlightenment, spin in a circle three times before sleeping – in order to be with God.

What we miss in all that working our way to God is the everyday, joyous awareness that God is living with us, praying with us, the breath of our meditation, the beat of our heart and beauty of each waking (and sleeping) moment. That’s something worth knowing.  As a happy by-product, when you take yourself off the path to God and walk your life’s pathway with God it will free you from needing to judge other people’s journeys as well. You can just “be” and let them “be” too.

The things we do in faith – going to church, following a practice , praying, giving, forgiving, meditating, healing, loving – they all help us and our fellow travelers to experience and express the God who is with us. They are important and valuable.  They are the essence of “Namaste” – the God in me honoring the God in you.

Make no mistake, life is still a journey and we are all on it.  I don’t know about you – but instead of seeing my life as an errand to pick God up along the way – I feel a lot better knowing God is in the boat with me.

Namaste

Namaste