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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Sunday Quotes: Church Is Not

“Church is not about learning how to be a moral person (though that is what the dominant narrative we hear tells us); it is a place where immoral individuals go in order to receive the grace of God.”

Johnathan P. Hill

The Delightful Laws of Skiing in Indiana (Psalm 1)

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“…but in the law of the Lord is his delight.”

(Psalms 1:2)

My parents taught me to ski when I was nine years old. This took place in Indiana. That is not a typo.

Skiing in Indiana is a unique experience. While it is still possible to seriously injure oneself (trees grow in Indiana as well as in Maine) it is also entirely possible to feign mastery with very little true capability. Skiing-as far as this havoc-wrecking, little Hoosier was concerned- required little other than pointing my skis downhill and possessing enough body mass for gravity to do its work. Beyond that, little control or turning was required.

I’ve been thinking for some time about the phrase in the first Psalm: “delight in the law of the Lord.” What a strange notion; have I ever delighted in any law?

The poem seems so polarized that the metaphors alienate me; I don’t walk in the way of the wicked (I’m not a Dallas Cowboys fan) and I don’t sit- at least intentionally- in the ‘seat of mockers’ (I will never partake in a presidential debate). But am I part of those who ‘flourish’ like trees by the river? I don’t think I meditate on the law of the Lord, certainly not day and night.

And all this creates a tension: the Christian life is supposed to be ‘free’ (the truth will set you free John 8:32). But then Paul goes and calls us slaves to Christ (you are now a slave of Christ 1 Corinthians 7:22). How can both of these be true?

When I was six years old, I taught my brother to play football. He was four and liked to cheat. Specifically, he enjoyed snapping the ball, turning and sprinting to his own end zone. “Touchdown!” he’d yell. To which I would protest: “It’s only fun if you play by the rules!” He disagreed. Provoking one’s older brother is a blast.

Which brings me back to skiing. Despite many days spent barreling down hills in Indiana, I have become a halfway decent skier. Enough to know, at least, that there are few feelings, few euphoric experiences, that can even begin to compare with a beautifully-executed parallel turn in fresh powder. Knowing what I know now, I’ve no desire resort to my original means of navigating a slope (namely hands on knees and screams of “MAYDAY!”).

The law of gravity and the law of friction dictate the laws of skiing: when I point my skis downhill, I will go; when I turn my skis perpendicular to the hill, I will stop. Apart from these rules, apart from this law, there is just mad, tumbling chaos.

The Christian faith- faith based on an eschatological hope in the life, work, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ- is hinged on belief into which Christians step freely. Sure, we can break the rules and go our own way. But bombastic plummets are a death wish on any slope higher than a Midwestern trash mound. (To be fair, the place where I learned to ski was natural. I think.) And it’s really not that fun. Pointing the skis straight downhill and holding on for dear life is actually gets a little boring.

This makes me think of C.S. Lewis: “No natural feelings are high or low, holy or unholy, in themselves. They are all holy when God’s hand is in the rein. They all go bad when they set up their own…”

I must remain within the framework of faith- the parameters of Christian hope- if I am to experience the resurrection of Christ as a daily, tangible reality. I can be creative; I can take it faster or slower; every skier has personal preferences and techniques. Theology, after all, is highly nuanced. But there are basic principles that must be followed in order for the thing I’m doing to classify as ‘skiing.’

The words of another commentator ring true in my mind: “Life is lived in futility if its fundamental purpose is never discovered.” It is hard to comprehend, but life is better with confines, with what Hebrew poets would have known as “the law.”

Faith requires submission but allows for true freedom. It opens us to the freedom of the mountains (or…hills), the freedom of fearlessness, of life lived within the knowledge that death has been conquered and all is being redeemed.

Following the law makes something that would otherwise be impossible, possible. It makes skiing possible. It makes teaching your four-year-old brother how to play football (so you can beat him at it) possible. It’s what makes Christianity so life-changing, so liberating.

Of course, this analogy is flawed and the correlation breaks down on multiple levels. But being a skier provides me the belief that there are some laws in which I might delight, that the very idea is even possible.

Even, I dare say, in Indiana.