“Beyond the desert of criticism, we wish to be called again…the same passion which leads us away from God can also lead us back to God and to our true selves.”
Richard Rohr, as cited by Sarah Bessey
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.
“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