I had a relative, a great-uncle. I never met him, but in my mind’s eye he looked like John D. Rockefeller. Staring straight into the camera he was impeccably well-groomed and he exuded confidence.
My great-uncle was a shining example of the Protestant work ethic. He didn’t have a lazy bone in his body. On the contrary he was nothing if not industrious. So far as we know he never oppressed anyone, or cheated anyone or misbehaved in any other way. By all appearances he was a successful, hardworking, smart-thinking, long-range-planning sort of guy.
Yet, everyone in the family felt sorry for him. Everyone pitied him.
First, he had this eccentric habit of talking to himself. He talked aloud to himself as if there was no one else in the room ... because, for my great-uncle, there really wasn’t anyone else in the room.
This talking to himself was a symptom of the real sadness. He was a prisoner of his own success, sufficiency and solitariness. He never married and never wanted for anything. He thought only of himself. He worried and planned only on his own behalf. He carried on his own conversations without benefit of others.
What he wanted and craved was what most of us want and crave: a sense of security, feeling safe, confidence that we will be taken care of: that we won’t go hungry or find ourselves left out in the cold.
So when my great-uncle had a bumper year—when the crops came in thick and strong … in part because he’s a good business man … but mostly because that year there was just the right combination of sun and rain and heat—he saw his chance.
He wanted it all: every grain, every potato and tomato and bean. He set out to transform those perishable fruits of the earth into non-perishable security. And so, after consulting himself, he devised a plan: he tore down his old barns. Then he built new ones: large, large barns—the largest in the land—large enough to hold his bumper crop and thus to secure his own future.
The family has a nickname for this great-uncle, an unflattering moniker. We call him the “rich fool.”
If you are baptized into the faith and family of Jesus, this great-uncle of mine, the rich fool, he is your great-uncle as well.
When you are adopted into the faith and family of Jesus, you inherit a raft of relatives: venerable ancestors and noble heroes. We get to claim as our relatives St. Francis of Assisi, Johann Sebastian Bach, Harriet Tubman and Desmond Tutu. But with the good comes the not so good. We also inherit as relatives some ne’er-do-wells, some very peculiar cousins, some foxes and some fools.
Please hold that thought.
How many of you ever watched any episodes of ABC’s hit television show, Lost? How many of you were die-hard-couldn’t-wait-for-the-next-episode fans? Over the course of nearly a decade, Lost achieved a kind cult status
Aficionados of Lost know that the show flirted with religion: with myth, mystery and metaphysics.
The writers mixed and matched elements of Christianity, Buddhism, Hinduism, Taoism, Egyptian religions, and New Age spirituality. The show featured as a character a Japanese Zen master; a Catholic named Mr. Eko who occasionally functioned as a priest … and who carried a stick wrapped in scriptural references.
To the great delight of some fans and to the great dismay of others, Lost’s final episode (so anticipated, so hyped) delivered a vision of the afterlife which combined Christian, Buddhist and New Age elements.
Lost was so successful, in part, because its writers tapped into the new religious reality in this country: the growing proclivity of our fellow citizens to practice a kind of religious bricolage … or, what has been called religious “combinativeness,” … the combining of this and that from various traditions: a pinch of Buddhism, a tablespoon of Judaism, a measure of Christianity, a cup of American Indian spirituality all mixed in with New Age divination. (See Sightings, 7/22/10 “The Bricolage Religion of Lost & American Religious Culture,” by Benjamin E. Zeller.)
Last year the Pew Forum produced a report which sites that thirteen percent of American Christians have visited psychics; twenty-two percent believe in reincarnation; twenty-three percent believe in spiritual energy in trees.
Martin Marty, a respected historian of American religion, describes the proclivity to dabble in this and that tradition as a “chameleon-like” and, not so much “commitment as “semi-commitment …” (Sightings, December 21, 2009, “Searching for God.”)
Stephen Prothero of Boston University, says of this phenomenon that we have increasingly become a nation of “religious drifters.” We drift in and out of traditions at will, as it suits our fancy, meets our needs, or satisfies a quest for personal fulfillment.
Presumably a great many of Americans are embarked upon serious, if unique, spiritual journeys.
Others, however, are pursuing “highly individualistic ventures” which are easily abandoned and aborted when the going gets rough.
Here’s my response to this increasingly significant contemporary American religious phenomenon.
Becoming a Christian is a bit like getting married. When I meet with couples engaged to be married we talk about monogamy and why it matters. We talk about the vows and the exclusive claims each is making. We admit aloud that any of us can find any number of people attractive, but that with our marriage vows we are agreeing to live within the limits of excusive love; agreeing to partner with a single person for better, for worse, for richer for poorer, in sickness and in health until we are parted by death.
Monogamy is as efficacious in religion as it is in marriage. The commitment—body and soul—to a single religion is meaningful.
It is from within the limits of a particular commitment … it is by vowing to adhere to a certain path (knowing well there are a variety of other worthy paths) that we submit ourselves to learning and growing. It is through this process, this sort of life-time commitment that we are challenged, changed and formed; that we become most useful to God.
When you marry into the Christian family—a large, diverse family of peculiar aunties and foolish uncles, of heroes and heroines, villains and scoundrels, and everything in between—you cannot help but encounter and engage with the sharp edges of other people’s lives, which might in fact be the sharp edges in your life. We are forced as well to learn from and we are challenged by the great ones who preceded us.
As an example: I can think of four members of this congregation who, in the course of the last two years, experienced something of what our great-uncle experienced: a windfall, a bumper year. For one couple it was the product of financial success … of bonuses … well earned and large. For another it was an unexpected inheritance. For another, it was the proceeds from the sale of her home.
Unlike our great-uncle, the rich fool, these people of faith engaged in conversation and sought advice. Immersed as they are in a particular Christian community, they were moved to ask what it means to life a faithful life, what God invites them to, and how to share their bounty with others. At their invitation we entered into conversation about some possibilities. One chose to provide much needed financial support for our 2009 Mission Trip to Appalachia; another made a significant contribution to the work of Habitat for Humanity; another made a donation to, and then challenged others to join them, in providing relief for victims of the Gulf Oil Spill.
Christian worship is no mere benign activity. It is not intended to be. Christians gather week in and week out for this: to immerse ourselves in the faith—to listen and to learn—to be formed by the Word, to be warned by the prophets, to be alarmed and educated by the failures of our foolish relatives, to be softened for kindness, melted by forgiveness, opened for generosity, trained to speak of God’s love, strengthened by courage, emboldened by our hope and equipped for service.
These, the fruits of the Christian life cannot be achieved by dabbling, by a little of this and a little of that, by coming and going at will. They are the hard-won fruit of concentration, intentionality and practice.
Beware: Christian worship is no mere benign activity. We are here to be changed by God … to be made better than when we arrived … to be changed for good.