Recycling Faith

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When I was in elementary school, our district did a can drive to promote recycling and cash-in the deposits for funding. Classrooms competed to collect as many aluminum cans as possible. The principal promised an ice cream party for the winning homeroom. I begged my parents to buy soda in bulk (“It’s the responsible thing to do!”). Instead, my father took us dumpster-diving.

We lived at the edge of suburbia in the midst of America’s housing boom; any square-foot of untouched land held potential for profit. At the end of each day, once construction crews were finished, we’d cruise the neighborhood looking for promising worksites. My sister and I scaled the metal walls of dumpsters glancing toward our father waiting by the car like we’d just been granted permission to rob an ice cream truck. Once in we would pick our way around the rubble, tossing any cans over and out where Dad collected them, like they were Easter eggs on a church lawn. Memory exaggerates, but I’m sure we collected several hundred cans with this routine.

A couple of weeks back, I went for a drink with a friend from grad school. We discussed his doctoral work, which was creating something of a faith crisis. “The old stories just don’t work for me anymore,” he told me. His tone was neither desperate nor dismissive; he wasn’t looking for answers or advice. Good thing, because the only response I could muster was swishing my glass while muttering “the drinks here have always been a bit too weak for me.”

It was in middle school that I began attending the weekly youth meetings at our church. We met on Tuesday nights for games and a Bible study. The youth pastor was young and cool (like, wore jeans-to-church cool); several college-aged leaders with frosted tips greeted us as we arrived. For two dollars, we could buy two slices of pizza and a soda.

We talked about Jesus and the Biblical stories. Seven days of creation, belly of a whale, virgin birth, the apocalypse…we got a crash course in fundamentals of the evangelical tradition. More importantly, we learned how to express that tradition (“share the good news”) to others. It was the latter that gave our education a sense of urgency. Faith had to be erected quickly like the new homes of the housing boom, structures built to meet the material demand of the masses which call for answers and concise paradigms. But, like a bursting bubble, not much is needed to reveal the weakness in the frames.

My childhood and the housing boom ended at roughly the same time. Dumpsters and muddy plots of land were replaced by overgrown gaps in the sidewalk. As puberty struck, I grew peach fuzz and skepticism. By the time I graduated college, enough of my long-held assumptions had been scrutinized that I felt like I was coughing in a cloud of smoke but still asking “is something burning?”

All this makes me think of a metal mug my father had in his office which he used for stashing all his loose change. Every six months or so he enlisted us kids to count up the coins into paper rolls— 100 pennies, 40 nickels, 50 dimes, etc. Completed rolls were left on his desk to be deposited in the bank. He called it our college fund. I never saw the deposit slips, but I’d call that “dark humor.” That said, it’s only recently occurred to me that the school district and my father seemed to employ a similar strategy for funding my education: save what you can, it just might add up.

I like to say that my childhood faith has evolved into deconstructed pieces. Practicing this faith is a kind of dumpster diving. Instead of checking boxes next to “I believe” I seek the pieces of my Christian heritage that can be recycled. Some days it’s difficult not to feel as though my tradition takes sincerity and cashes it in for platitudes. The 2016 election, for instance, was like someone gathered all those recyclable cans I’d been collecting and tossed them into the ocean, right above some seals. Baby seals. Just because they could.

I never left the church. Even though the old stories haven’t been working for a long time.  I think I lack the courage. A hiatus here and there may have done me— and my faith— some good. But I’ve never had the bravery of Thomas— searching for answers out in the world while the other disciples remained huddled, terrified, in a locked room.

My class won, by the way. And ice cream during school hours never tasted so good. Which is to say that I do think there’s still–there’s always— hope. Even if it comes from a dumpster, even if only worth a nickel. Because who knows, it just might add up.

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A Prayer for Holy Week (Tuesday)

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Dear God,

What was Tuesday like for you on this week, so many centuries ago? What was any Tuesday like for you? How did you wake, brush your teeth, strap on your sandals, greet the disciples…how did have any sort of ‘normal’ routine, knowing what the end of the week held?

I think, sometimes, that it would be wonderful to know the future. But I have anxiety issues as it is.

So what are you trying to teach us, O Lord, from the fact that you lived? Not that you were born, you died and then you popped out of the grave…but that you alsolived. You were nursed and went through teething; you learned to walk (land AND water…chica-whaa?); you had a laugh and a smile; you had friends, some less annoying than others; you scraped your knees; you grew peach fuzz; you got sunburn and blisters; you had favorite foods and the meals you’d gotten sick of (like fishes and bread, I’d guess). God, what a fun thing to imagine, that you lived as one of us, that the most elementary human experiences are all things which you yourself celebrated and endured.

And yet…the whole time, you knew about the cross.

I mean, I take Xanax… but how did you manage that? Especially on the Tuesday before your crucifixion. Your disciples had no clue! You bore the burden of this knowledge alone.

I wonder, Jesus, if there’s a lesson in that for me. I know the future- or at least you’ve given me a spoiler alert: it doesn’t end with the grave but with the resurrection. (Granted, I don’t always believe it will end this way. But you assure me nonetheless.)You’ve left out the bad parts and shared with me the best. Why don’t I live that way? Better yet, why don’t I live every moment like it’s a divine moment. Because at some point in your life, you shared the most basic of experiences I- as a human- have. So if flatulence, washing hands, sighs, eye rolls and headaches can be part of the divine life…why can’t the rest of mine too?

Help me to live the divine life, oh Lord. Help me to live life like someone who knows the end of the story. And help me to truly believe that I do.

Make this day spectacular, not because anything has changed, but because grace has changed the way in which I see all the anythings.

Amen.